BWW Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Arvada Center
I've spent a couple decades successfully avoiding Jesus Christ Superstar. I generally don't like religion, and Andrew Lloyd Webber isn't my favorite composer.
However, after attending the Arvada Center's current production, I'm a bit more of a believer...in the show, at least. Given Arvada's traditional approach to the piece, this surprised me. From what I've noticed, some directors tend to throw odd concepts to keep the story interesting or metaphorical, and sometimes that distracts from the overall message. Not Director Rod Lansbury, who's provided a concept that depicts the time period as accurately as possible, keeping the story where it feels true.
The story of Jesus Christ Superstar, is a timely one for the upcoming Easter holiday, telling the tale of Jesus's final week as Judas betrays him, eventually leading to his crucifixion. Paired with Lloyd Webber's music are lyrics by Tim Rice. The entire show is a rock opera, so it's completely sung through, which is typically my jam...but for this one, give me the ballads and belty rock solos, I could live without the repetitive chanty chorus parts. Originally written in the 1970s, you still get a vibe from that era.
The stellar cast is led by Billy Lewis Jr., whom you might recognize as a newcomer Mason on the final season of TV's Glee. Lewis, who's got the Jesus look down, brings killer rock vocals to the role, infused with the kind of passionate pathos you crave from his ballads. He makes Jesus relatably mortal, keeping his struggle evident and profound.
But as much as this is Jesus's story, this is Judas's show. An exceptional Matt LaFontaine (who stepped into the role only a couple days prior to opening) rips his heart out onstage and belts some really impressive notes about it. His portrayal is devoted, not taking a moment for granted, and you can feel it.
Other notable performances include Jenna Bainbridge's poignantly lovely Mary Magdalene, Markus Warren as a powerful Pilate with delectable vocals, Wayne Kennedy giving his signature wit to King Herod, with Stephen Day and Joe Callahan hitting both ends of the octave spectrum as Caiaphas and Annas, bent on making sure Jesus doesn't damage the integrity of the priesthood and the Roman Empire.
With a magnificent ensemble to round out the production, the cast alone is reason enough to catch this show. But certainly not the only one. This production is visually stunning.
A detailed scenic design by Brian Malgrave was smartly built with a turntable, providing great movement to parts that would otherwise feel a little dull. However, I didn't feel like it was used to its full advantage. A lot of the turntable action was generally the same, just spinning around cast members with some movement. For such an awesome piece, I would have liked to see it used more often and unexpectedly.
There seemed to be a collection of Bible references added throughout, like guards playing dice for Jesus's possessions and using a speared sponge to give him water. These moments enhanced the show's context, which was a clever decision.
I was a little dissatisfied in the death of Judas, which was simply a shadow projection of an immobile hanging man. With such a powerful conclusion from LaFontaine's Judas, his death wasn't visually exciting to me. I wanted to feel affected by it, but its execution felt basic, like an afterthought.
Choreography by Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck utilized the mood of the show well, keeping the movement expressive and lyrical, creating a lot of gorgeous stage pictures. Period costumes by Clare Henkel offered a realistic glimpse at the attire of Jesus's time. The band, led by David Nehls, brought the rock score to a hardcore level.
But what makes Jesus Christ Superstar so special, this production especially, is the raw life it gives to something that's always felt mythical to me. When you're immersed in something so smartly executed, despite what you believe, it's hard to not be affected.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays the Arvada Center through April 16. Tickets are available at ArvadaCenter.org or by calling the box office directly at (720)898-7200.
Photos by P. Switzer Photography