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Review: Spectacular JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Orpheum Theatre

Review:  Spectacular JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Orpheum Theatre

The touring production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at the Orpheum this week is just what the Hennepin Theatre Trust calls it: spectacular. Staged originally in London in 2017, it won that year's Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival. This young company is brim full of talent and energy. They bring unrelenting vitality to this production, which marks (yep, really!) the 50th anniversary of this show.

Full disclosure: I love this score. To my mind, it's far and away the best of the collaborations between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It's varied (rock showstoppers, ballads, choral anthems, and more) and chock full of earworms that stick with you long after you've seen it.

The staging here is boffo, too, with large structural elements (including an onstage entry ramp that is, of course, a cross) and a gazillion powerful lights, including many motor driven that permit strong, shifting shafts of light to up the drama, aided by fog machines, judiciously employed. The company of 28 actors makes their first entrance through the side aisles of the historic Orpheum theater, bouncing onto stage in grey hoodies and white or beige loose cut pants, revealing an occasional toned midriff or bicep. They'll change these out for various other looks, mostly by shedding or adding pieces, sometimes abruptly changing the color palette. For instance, when Jesus disrupts the temple merchants, things go red and glittery. Another example: the apostles don simple solid color shawls at the Last Supper, and (much to the audience's appreciation) hit a momentary tableau of the DaVinci image with admirable precision.

The leads are up to the significant demands of this score. The story is told largely from Judas' point of view, and James Delisco Beeks brings passion and vocal prowess both in his lower and falsetto ranges to the role; he's also a fine actor, communicating his inner dilemmas and conflicts with great believability. Aaron LaVigne as Jesus is tall and lanky and at his best in his upper registers. This staging is very physical, and also quite bloody by the end, and he commits to all of it. Jenna Rubaii as Mary Magdalene is sweet without being dipsy or cloying in the slightest, and can sing the famous ballad ("I Don't Know How to Love Him") with original touches that render it hers.

Also worthy of note are Alvin Crawford as Caiaphas, who has both the physique and the voice for this great basso role; and his foil Annas, played by Tyce Green, who has presence way bigger than his slight frame might suggest, plus a commanding tenor voice. Paul Louis Lessard has great fun doing Herod (with the help of a huge gold training cape and other golden attributes) as a cross between Elton John and Carol Channing.

The ensemble dances with striking contemporary moves and fine synchrony. There is some popping and locking, some communal lifts that suggest crowd surfing at a rock concert, some female undulation; little that could be said to be lyrical. The powerful pulse in the dancing helps propel the action in this 90 minute version of the last days of Jesus' life.

Not all touring shows nail the acoustics of their ever-changing venues, despite big budgets and the best efforts of expert sound folks. This production succeeds remarkably well: it's very much a rock opera, plenty loud when it wants to be, but never distorted or deafening. Softer numbers carry too. Several of the actors (notably LaVigne as Jesus and Tommy McDowell as Peter) play guitar to accompany themselves and others. Not they they need to do this: there's a highly accomplished 11 person band up on the second level of the set, looking down on the action. Spoken text was clear, too, with one exception: Tommy Sherlock as Pontius Pilate was difficult to understand in his first scene, but this was either cleaned up electronically in his second appearance or my ear had had a chance to adjust to his Liverpool accent.

It must be clear by now that purists who like their biblical stories to stay neatly confined to the sanitized images in the Bibles on which they were confirmed may find this all too much to take. But for others, this is a sterling example of a great show unhindered by budgetary constraints, designed and choreographed with contemporary vitality, and performed with energy by a talented cast of eager triple threats: that is, actors who sing and dance with flair. It plays at the Orpheum just through Sunday, January 26.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

From This Author - Karen Bovard

Karen Bovard reviewied theater online, in weekly arts papers, and in scholarly journals for 20 years in New England. In 2016, she relocated to Saint Paul, MN. She's been making theater for more... (read more about this author)