BWW Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR Dazzles at Bass Concert Hall
If you're like me and of a certain age (ahem!) you might've danced around your living room acting out all the parts of a concept album released in the 70's lovingly referred to as the brown album, and better known to the general public as JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. It may have even been a part of inspiring you to explore theatre and become a reviewer later in life. Andrew Lloyd Webber was 23 years old when he composed it, teaming with Tim Rice as lyricist. This little concept album went on to become the most beloved British musical of all time, according to some sources. And when experiencing the musical it is important to keep in mind that this show is allegedly best conceived as a concert, conceived from a concept. It has no particular strong narrative to move it along between songs, lending it nicely to all kinds of creativity when it comes to staging. But this is also one of the best known stories in Western civilization, right? We know how this ends, and many of us are familiar with all the events leading up to the climax of this big show. And a big show it is. This is not your grandmother's JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, and it's not your mom's either. This is an America's Got Talent, The Voice, millennial kind of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.
Brimming full with energy, the youthful ensemble of this show enters from all around us, excited and inspired by this handsome blue-eyed rock star Jesus who leads them. Except Judas since this version of the story is written from his point of view. A point of view that went a long way toward deeming this musical as sacrilege in its initial production. It's not a popular opinion by certain narratives, but Judas was just trying to help, right? Jesus ought to be quite careful rabble rousing with the authorities the way he did. Jesus could get himself killed. Still, the mob doesn't seem to care. They're busy making a star out of a Jesus who is less messiah and more man in this telling of the tale. He's almost wooden, shocked or tired maybe, by the way his narrative has been hijacked by the people around him - the mob, his apostles, having to live up to an image he can't possibly fulfill. It's a story of celebrity told in an age where anyone can get fifteen minutes of fame. Everyone has a story about Jesus, and he's lost in the stories others tell. It's easily a reflection of the current climate. Even the lashing and crucifixion in this production is done with literal glitter and gold. We gloss over the hard stuff and glamorize suffering. In reflecting this, the show is genius.
Lee Curran's lighting design becomes a testament to the concert concept, and the orchestra shares the stage with the actors. Jesus's mob and disciples are clad in earthy and grey hues designed by Tom Scutt. (It also seems a little cramped up there, but never mind that) This is a post-apocalyptic JCS, dusty, gritty, and hardly of wealth. It's a scrappy group of followers this rising star messiah, complete with man bun and guitar, has attracted around himself. Drew McOnie's choreography is tight, bursting with the energy of fervent Appalachian Pentacostals. The music is a lush orchestration of classic rock, and even after years of listening to this music, I found much to hear that seemed new and the ensemble was especially gorgeous in this respect. Everywhere possible we see the principals of this show using mics as if they were just a part of their world. Shared with each other, hand held, adjusted, and in several cases, doing double duty as props. Non-stop, Jesus's life is on display over loudspeaker, reflecting a world where babies are comfortably born for all the world to see: instagrammed, facebooked, and tweeted. Anyone could be a celebrity. It's a concept that is committed to and delivered in this show.
This is a refreshingly diverse cast, and in all its iterations, has been so for each production conceived. However, while it's no fault of the great performers here, why are we still casting a black man to betray a white guy? Guys, this might not be the coolest way to cast the show anymore, despite what traditional casting might call for. Despite these particular optics, there is great talent in this production. Aaron LaVigne gives us soaring vocals. Even in the shadow of John Legend's Jesus in NBC's broadcast last year, LeVigne has no problem impressing with his fine vocals. James Delisco Beeks shows us a Judas desperately wrestling with his relationship to Jesus, passionately fulfilling his role in this tragedy. Jenna Rubaii is a gorgeous young Mary, and I cannot say enough about her inclusion as one of the disciples in a clever nod to some staging taken directly from Michaelangelo's Last Supper. Tommy Sherlock as Pilate and Paul Louis Lessard as Herod are a commanding presence. Particularly Lessard, who is so decked out as Herod he has to be bigger than the costume. And I can't move on without a nod to the character that always tickles me most in this musical: Caiaphas. Alvin Crawford is big and bold and bass-y, and doesn't disappoint.
The focus of this production is on celebrity at a breakneck pace with no intermission to slow it down. Keep that in mind when having a cocktail before the show. This also means the true relationships these characters have with each other gets lost in the melee. The staging and concept isolate the main characters from creating bonds with each other and doesn't help with an already scant narrative. But it's a great story to many, anyway. So famous that most of us can fill in the blanks. As a result, though, I didn't take away much when I left. I felt kind of empty. The opportunity to show us a classic powerful story through the relationship of two, dare I say it, iconic characters, gets lost to the idea of celebrity. Perhaps that's the point, though. And that's really sad.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
directed by Timothy Sheader
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Bass Concert Hall
2350 Robert Dedman, UT campus.
For tickets visit www.broadwayinaustin.com
90 minute run time, no intermission