Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Kennedy Center

This fast-moving 50th Anniversary Tour is built on its rock.

By: Feb. 27, 2022

Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Kennedy Center

"Jesus Christ Superstar" originally ascended more than a half century ago - an audacious creation, written from the philosophical viewpoint of Judas Iscariot.

In a time of rock operas, it held together better than most, boasted a couple of bona fide radio hits and is arguably still the best thing created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, though they went on to much bigger commercial successes, from "Cats" and "Evita" to The Phantom of the Opera," creating its own genre of epic musical.

But lowly "J.C. Superstar" began life as a hit double album in 1970 and wouldn't be produced on Broadway for another year (though there were dozens of unauthorized stagings and concerts because of its sheer popularity).

Despite a number of middling, overblown sanctioned productions over the years (including an overcooked 1973 film attempt), the sleek, fast-moving version currently at the Kennedy Center is an award-winning production from London's Regents Park Theatre, directed by Timothy Sheader, that propels forward with the drive of the music, never stopping for dialogue, much stagecraft, or even an intermission. And it succeeds on nearly every level.

Sticking closely to the original concept album, it fairly flies along with the kind of strong voices and searing guitars that made the original so glorious and sometimes corny.

A solid Omar Lopez-Cepero sets the stage as Judas, voicing his concerns ("Listen Jesus, I don't like what I see"), alongside that familiar stinging guitar. He'd get the last word, as well, in the show's title song, with its sly observations ("If you'd come today, you would have reached a whole nation; Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication").

The full-sounding 16-piece band stands over the action on a second floor on the scaffolding set by Tom Scutt. Its edges serve to make the performance space tight for the ensemble of 17 who, in addition to their jerkily propulsive dance moves also serve as a chorus, dressed in sand-colored Yeezy athleisure wear, circa 2015. (Choreography is by Drew McOnie; Scutt did costumes as well).

Keith Caggiano and Nick Lidster created a sound design with unsurpassed lyric clarity. The actors, already affixed with headset mics often have hand held microphones for dramatic reasons, calling to mind the concert aspects of the piece visually, even as they are cleverly used as other devices- passed among the leads like a sacred chalice, or microphone stands that do double duty as scepters of the high priests.

As Jesus, Aaron LaVigne has the height and serenity to be a leader; his voice too is strong and can jump quickly to the rock-style falsetto scream when required, as on "Gethsemane."

Jenna Rubaii doesn't have much to do as Mary; she tries to comfort him ("Everything's Alright") but is frankly mystified how to proceed further ("I Don't Know How to Love Him"). She is a calming presence though and welcome every time she takes lead, because her songs are some of the best known from the work.

Perhaps it's because she's so little-used, her character was given a third song late in the piece that wasn't part of the original recording and only added once it was on Broadway, "Can We Start Again, Please."

The high priests and officials who consider Jesus' fate are effective; the voice of Caiaphais, Alvin Crawford, almost comically low. Onetime "American Idol" contestant Tyce Green is effective in his brief spotlight as Annas.

Tommy McDowell emerges from the ensemble to do the big crowd-pleasing Harod song, a Vaudeville-style number that sets it apart from everything else musically, but a needed contrast as things get darker toward the end.

Tommy Sherlock's Pilate is a standout, with laurel wreaths tattooed on the shaved side of his head. He questions, too, why Jesus won't defend himself as he appears, bloodied after torture. ("Why do you not speak when I hold your life in my hands?")

That exchange comes before the 39 lashes, which are administered through glitter bombs in an incongruous bit of staging. Its flash matched the rain of glitter confetti amid the money changers at the temple.

The end is ambiguous, closing with death but not resurrection, with Judas and Jesus sitting side by side, as if to wonder what is next. The opening night crowd couldn't get up out of their seats fast enough for its ovation.

For the record, this isn't the first time a Judas from this touring production has been in D.C.; James D. Beeks, performing under the name James T. Justis, was charged for taking part in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, 2020; and was arrested during the tour's stop in Milwaukee in November. Jesus might have asked him what he was thinking, as well.

Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Photo credit: Aaron LaVigne and Tommy Sherlock in "Jesus Christ Superstar." Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

"Jesus Christ Superstar: 50th Anniversary Tour" continues at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through March . Tickets at 202-467-4600 or online.

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