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Review: Even Refreshed for its 50th Anniversary, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR Remains Dated & Divisive — Dr. Phillips Center

The controversial classic is a concert first and foremost, more keen on rock than religion...

Jesus Christ Superstar

As the great Martin Short once said, "In the early 1970s, the theatrical community was obsessed with two things: full-frontal nudity and the Lord Jesus Christ."

One of those is front and center this week at Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center, where Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice's 1971 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is in town on its 50th Anniversary U.S. run. (It's the same tour that made headlines late last year when, irony of ironies, the actor playing Judas was arrested for his alleged involvement in the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.)

The production certainly looks like something of this century, with a set comprised of catwalks and high-beam steel, while Jesus himself rocks a man bun so bulbous he could lead any modern-day megachurch. There's a Hillsong sensibility to all the hairstyles and costumes, with just a touch of Adam Lambert-esque glam rock for good measure.

But the show remains fundamentally a relic of the precise moment in time that Short summed up so well, when the convergence of counterculture and rock & roll meant that an irreverent but ultimately thin concept like this one - "the Bible but make it a concert" - seemed utterly avant-garde.

Suffice it to say that if you bought tickets with your church group, this is not the show you came for. Its doubtful take on the "Greatest Story Ever Told" opens as Jesus's ministry is already well underway and ends at crucifixion (not resurrection, notoriously). Rice and Webber extend outsize roles to both Judas and Mary Magdalene, each of them with lyrics that leave any Sunday School alumnus unsure of whether a standing ovation will keep their salvation secure.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR has earned criticism from different corners over the years, including some Christians who've called it blasphemous and some Jewish patrons who've seen it as an antisemitic passion play. Equally uncomfortable are theatre fans who want a show that's easy to follow or has a clear sense of what it wants to say.

But this SUPERSTAR is not without nuance. Even those characters clearly skeptical of Jesus's claim to divinity acknowledge there are things they can't quite explain, and there's a small moment at the very end of this production that just might be aimed at averting revolt in the Bible Belt. (Ditto the decision to perform this two-act musical in one ninety-minute block, meaning nobody can walk out at intermission.) Ultimately, all kinds of readings are available to the audience, which might alternately see it as a harmless thought experiment, an examination of mortal contradictions, or a meditation on doubt.

Anyone acquainted with NBC's live television version of the show will find in Aaron LaVigne a less brazenly arrogant Jesus- more dimensional but intensely emotional nonetheless. LaVigne has a strong and wide-ranging rock voice, but his biggest Steven Tyler moments get the best of him.

Omar Lopez-Cepero (Judas), Jenna Rubaii (Mary Magdalene), Alvin Crawford (Caiaphas), Tyce Green (Annas), Tommy Sherlock (Pilate), and the rest of the ensemble are all strong singers, clearly cast with rock-ready vocal chops in mind. It's just a shame that neither the libretto nor the slick, concert-oriented production leave much space for acting outside of vocal theatrics.

Wednesday night's sound mix had the rock band overpowering the vocalists, whose lyrics - so critical to parsing out this show's theology - were frequently hard to discern. That might explain why one patron's hand was swaying in worship while Judas belted tauntingly at a badly wounded Jesus.

A lighting issue also meant the finale was less than fully lit on Wednesday night, though first-timers were likely none the wiser.

But to the extent that Jesus Christ Superstar is fundamentally a rock record on stage (indeed, it was originally conceived as a music album), there's no doubt that this sound system gives Dr. Phillips Center all the oomph and energy of an arena tour.

If there's a superstar on stage, though, it's Drew McOnie's thrilling choreography, well served by this expressive touring cast. McOnie captures the power and the passion of both mob mentality and worshipful zeal - even when diction and lyrical perceptibility succumb to the jam.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR plays at Dr. Phillips Center's Walt Disney Theater now through June 12. For tickets or more information, visit the venue in person or online.

What do you think of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR on tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.

Photo: Aaron LaVigne and the company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman. Courtesy of Dr. Phillips Center. Used with permission.

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