BWW Review: 50th Anniversary Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR Rocks Out at Broadway San Jose
The 50th-anniversary tour of the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar is playing at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts courtesy of Broadway San Jose. Blaring guitars and a plethora of white spotlights created a concert-like atmosphere. And while the music did rock the house the story of Jesus' last days on earth felt lost in the production. To be fair, director Timothy Sheader is on record saying that his vision was not about putting the story at the front. It was rather to have an experience with the music. Certainly, with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, you can't go wrong there. From the first iconic guitar riff, through to the 39 Lashes scene and beyond, the music is electrifying. And yes, it was set up like a rock concert, replete with hand-held mics and guitar-playing actors with the leads singing out to the audience. Yet they somehow never broke the 4th wall, which made for a very tenuous connection to the crowd. That said, almost all the parts worked, but they never added up to a cohesive whole.
James Delisco Beeks is nothing short of superb in his antagonistic role as the apostle Judas. He's disturbed by what he sees as Jesus' betrayal of his own message. Hanging out with Mary Magdalene (who, ever since the 6th Century has wrongly been portrayed as a prostitute) can't be proper. And spending money on expensive ointment when that money could be given to the poor doesn't sit well with Judas either. What bitter irony when he himself betrays the message and rats out Jesus to Rome's underling Caiaphas for 30 pieces of silver.
Judas and the other apostles follow a man-bun-coiffed, troubled and distraught Jesus played with consummate rock star chops by Aaron LaVigne. But Jesus doesn't seem like the leader of a band of itinerant apostles so much as a lost soul simply waiting for the end.
Up to this point, he's preached a message of hope for the poor and the hurting during the Roman occupation of Judea and has railed against the Jewish elite who've joined forces with their conquerors. Only his Jewish followers are on his side. And what a group. This dynamic and diverse hipster ensemble, who undoubtedly will appeal to a younger audience, imbue the show with a seismic intensity that plays dramatically against the agonizing storyline. Drew McOnie's pulsating choreography is celebrated in Jesus' followers and is truly the heartbeat of this revival.
Significantly downplayed is the role of Peter (Tommy McDowell) who is only highlighted when he, like Judas, betrays Jesus by disavowing any relationship with the great man. Interestingly, Jenna Rubaii's Mary Magdalene emerges as the apostolic leader, providing succor to a weakening Jesus and wise words quietly delivered to his followers. Rubaii's soft intonations in "Everything's Alright" are the calm in a chaotic sea of upheaval as they travel onward to Jerusalem.
There, Jesus runs afoul of Roman enablers, Caiaphas (the amazing Alvin Crawford), Annas (a searing portrayal by Tyce Green) and Herod (Paul Louis Lessard shines in this comic relief role). By the time he appears before Rome's Governor, Pontius Pilate (a tattooed and stunning Tommy Sherlock) he is, to put it bluntly, covered in blood. (This wouldn't be my first choice for a show to bring the kids to). Pilate tries in vain to understand this Jesus who doesn't defend himself but who nevertheless has been brought before him to be sentenced to death on a cross.
Tom Scutt's scenic design visually enforces the theme of the cross. Large, rusted steel girders form the partially finished two-storied structure where the orchestra is tucked away. Visually, the girders form rows of crosses across the stage. Seemingly one of the large girders has fallen center-stage right, forming an upside-down, raked cross/ramp that the Empire's elite use as their platform above the crowd. It also serves as the catwalk for Herod's big number, "King Herod's Song," the table for the last supper and as Golgotha where Jesus will end up on a cross.
Jesus Christ Superstar is really a modern Passion Play. These dramatic performances of Jesus' final days have been staged since the 13th century and have unwittingly been the source of anti-Semitism through the ages. The task today is to ensure that the portrayal of the Jewish followers of Jesus, especially after Palm Sunday, contributes to a positive understanding of Christianity's Jewish roots.