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BWW Review: High-Decibel JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR Tour Rocks Out at OC's Segerstrom Center

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The refreshed, hipster-styled 50th Anniversary Tour reminds audiences that the show is definitely more rock concert than musical theater, and it explodes this distinction

Jesus Christ Superstar JCS50
Aaron LaVigne (center) and the 50th Anniversary National Tour Cast of
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

During the opening night performance of the week-long 50th Anniversary National Tour stop of the revived JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa---the first "Broadway" national tour to play here since the pandemic shutdowns of March 2020---my press seats happen to be situated next to a couple of rather enthusiastic (and, eventually, increasingly extra) audience members that, I presume, one doesn't typically see at a Broadway-type show.

At first, their behavior seemed almost adorable as they audibly fangirled over every aspect. But for the entirety of the intermission-less show (which performs in this venue through Sunday, November 14, 2021), the two extreme JCS groupies were continually screeching and yelling and whoop-whooping and banging their head to the beat and conversing and singing along loudly to every song in composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice's rock opera. The pair (mis)behaved as if they were at a Metallica concert rather than experiencing a stage play---quite unlike what most would expect at a typical Broadway or musical theater performance.

But their, uh, enthusiastic, almost too unnecessarily euphoric reactions to the show is, perhaps, the best explanation for this renewed draw for this now 50-year-old rock concept album-turned-Broadway musical: if the show is presented as the rock concert it should have always been deep down in its roots, then non-traditional audiences craving for "modernized" experiences will eat it all up (though super religious purists, of course, will likely still have some, uh, problems with everything being portrayed here).

Here, the music is elevated as the top priority. The story... well, it's still in there. Somewhere.

And much like the extremely praised (no pun intended) Live TV Concert production in 2018 featuring John Legend, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Sara Bareilles, the palpable, intentional vibe of this new US National Tour---directly imported from the well-received 2016 Regent's Park Theatre London production helmed by director Timothy Sheader that won the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival---is to emphasize the show as a series of high-decibel, highly-stylized Big Musical Production Numbers (yes, even the ballads and interludes) where the "story" acts as merely a way to organize the songs in a linear order to follow Christ's journey from revered prophet to peculiar puzzlement to betrayed friend. Rather than hide this, the production truly leans on this with unashamed pride.

BWW Review: High-Decibel JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR Tour Rocks Out at OC's Segerstrom Center
James T. Justis

Along the way, this fascinating hybrid of a rock opera arena concert, a Sunday morning modern-hipster MegaChurch service, and some, I suppose, after-thought musical theater-izing (yes, I made up that term), this JCS iteration mesmerizes the audience with high-budget music video production values, beautiful modern choreography (courtesy of Drew McOnie) and bombastic vocal stylings that mish-mashes various musical genres like pop, rock, alternative, R&B, and, of course, gospel.

So who cares if newbies to the story are confused as to what is happening or who is "speaking" at any given moment? To borrow a sentence from Russell Crowe in Gladiator: "Are you not entertained?"

Far more concerned with style over (narrative) substance, this brand new re-staging of the 1971 musical that recounts the final days leading up to the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ fashions an atypical musical theater presentation for those that don't necessarily go specifically to see musical theater. Here, how the music is presented is, at its core, its raison d'être.

To further clarify, this new staging of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is undeniably entertaining---from its striking visuals and impressive production values, to the often hypnotic high-energy dancing and, most notably, the show's spectacular voice talents that have been assembled for this tour. Though my heart aches for the poor vocal chords these powerhouse high-belters seemingly scratch up at every performance, I can't help but be impressed at their collective singing prowess. In the few live stage productions I have seen of the show, I can honestly say that I have never heard this songbook sung quite as fiercely, as passionately, and as jaw-droppingly powerful as I witnessed on this stage. If there were national touring theater awards for vocal gymnastics and power-belting, this show will certainly make a clean sweep.

BWW Review: High-Decibel JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR Tour Rocks Out at OC's Segerstrom Center
50th Anniversary National Tour Cast of
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

Particularly praiseworthy are the show's top-billed stars. I sort of drank most of the Kool Aid served by the very talented Aaron LaVigne, who plays the title role with the confident yet super casual swagger of a hipster rock star/megachurch pastor---complete with a man-bun, flowing neutral linen threads (pretty great Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens cosplay) and an acoustic guitar for those oh-so-groovy fireside sing-alongs (he gets more rock-agro/grunge as the night progresses and "plugs in" his guitar). When he sings, it's actually pretty stunning to hear.

I was also in awe of power vocalist James T. Justis who plays troubled disciple (and eventual traitor) Judas, spending most of the evening perplexed and frustrated---but sounding hella great while doing so. I was most impressed by the gorgeous, clear singing voice of Jenna Rubaii who plays Mary Magdalene. Providing the softer scenes of the show, Rubaii offers many moments of beauty to contrast the aggressive rock anthems. I really love her vocal choices throughout the show, most especially on "I Don't Know How To Love Him."

Also worth noting: deep bass/baritone Alvin Crawford as Caiaphas, Tommy Sherlock as Pilate, Eric A. Lewis as Peter, Tyce Green as Annas, and Paul Louis Lessard as the flashy King Herod (channeling a very convincing Adam Lambert-ish impression).

Everything about this iteration wants to not-very-subtly hammer home that is very much a rock concert, and so everything the audience sees (and hears)---from the Ancient characters nonchalantly using hand-held microphones while rebel-yelling their lyrics, right down to the handcuffs made of thick audio cables that bind Jesus' wrists during his arrest and subsequent torture. Heck, even the ceremonial staffs that Caiaphas and the other priests regally hold, are able to convert them with just a turn to become mic stands. There's even instances when a trio of Jesus' followers form a girl group, gyrating like a sexy doo-wop group. I do appreciate such attention to detail, and, for the most part, this whole conceit works in the show's favor.

But unless you're even mildly familiar with the events and personalities that played a part in Christ's last days, much of the show could become a constant head-scratcher as it progresses along. One should probably not look to JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR as a first go-to for the specifics. Speaking of... I've always wondered why they didn't end the show with his resurrection, which would have been an appropriate punctuation to a show about a "superstar." Seeing that be added to this would have been a nice bonus.

Overall, this high-energy rock concert-like 50th Anniversary tour certainly wins all the points for style---it's a total sensory overload that may be dazzling for some but puzzling for others.

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

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Photos from the 50th Anniversary National Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Performances of the 50th Anniversary Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, November 14, 2021. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.


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