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REVIEW: Another Look at Jesus Christ Superstar (Orpheum Theatre/HTT)

A scene from Jesus Christ Superstar, now playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In the 50th Anniversary Broadway touring version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus is a rock star messiah. This is portrayed quite literally: Aaron LaVigne, as Jesus, stands behind a mic stand with guitar hanging across his body. It is not a highly original take on the rock opera since, the “rock star as messiah” metaphor has been around since the days of Tommy, the first rock opera.

In an effort to create a faster-paced production (the show runs 90 minutes without an intermission), Director Timothy Sheader downplays the dramatic acting in favor of a concert-style performance. Mics, mic cables, and mic stands become important visual icons that fill in for minimal characterizations. For example, the inevitable suicide of Judas ends up being symbolized by a lone mic swaying on a cable over the stage.

A massive cross dominates the stage in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

James Delisco Beeks as Judas, Jenna Bubaii as Mary and Tommy McDowell as Peter are all very good singers. However, the performers walk through the story of the passion of Jesus without us getting to know their characters at all. Even when Jesus and Judas hug each other and Mary seems to be leading Jesus off to bed, you feel no real intimacy. The moneychangers in the temple scene proved to be an incomprehensible dud, both visually and dramatically.

The ensemble was much more successful portraying the poor who overwhelm Jesus with their inexhaustible needs. Jesus, who shows no feeling of perishing under the weight of humanity, cries “Heal yourselves”, and shakes their dust from his jacket. He seemed glad his shirt didn’t get wrinkled.

Like Hair and other rock musicals of the hippie/communal tradition, Superstar has an ensemble of twenty or more performers who play the disciples, the mob, the poor, the moneychangers, etc…roles which they take on with energetic aplomb. However, Drew Mconie’s choreography, far from the fluid, tribal-ritual movement work of the Sixties, at times seems workmanlike and without inspiration, and mostly epeated a small vocabulary of gestures.

The rectangular background set design by Tom Scutt gives the impression that, the trials and tribulations of Christ happened in a trendy warehouse district. The bulky stage frames and an elevated runway in the shape of an inverted cross leave little room for ensemble footwork. The lighting design by Lee Curran is heavy on dark spaces, shadows and dimness. At times, it is just plain hard to see what’s going on.

Strong light contrasts dominate Lee Curran’s lighting design. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

On the other hand, the claustrophobic feel of the staging is broken with the entrance of the five priests down the runway. Suddenly, Alvin Crawford as Caiaphas and Tyce Green as Annas become the dramatic focus. Green’s eyes gleam as the corrupt official planning the demise of Jesus and his singing voice drips with sarcasm. Crawford’s requisite booming baritone fills the theatre with dread. The movement of the five priests is also extraordinary, using of mic stands as scepter-like props.

Tommy Sherlock as Pontius Pilate and Paul Louis Lessard as Herod give phenomenal, standout performances. Herod especially gave the audience the over-the-top satire bits that it expected. Sherlock’s Pilate, sporting an English accent and hipster leather outfit, was especially great. Roman? Not so much

The stage band under the direction of Shawn Gough is consistently good. Also, having seen a variety of theatricalizations of the 39 Lashes scene, and I sympathize with the director’s idea of not portraying torture. Splashing Jesus with gold sparkles with each count, however, does not generate the same unrelenting build-up of tension.

Roman or Rocker? The visual iconography of the national tour moves channels a mix of contemporary and classic rock iconography. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

A miracle occurs half-way through the show during the Gethsemane scene, when Jesus sings his soliloquy at a mic stand while playing his guitar. This momentary image, reflecting the internal misery of Jesus as a troubled singer-songwriter, comes across as strikingly original. Finally, Judas sings “Superstar (I Only Want to Know)” in an anti-climatical performance without any of the usual intense irony. However, before his crucifixion, in a scene worthy of performance art, Jesus is crowned with a golden crown of thorns, while looking bloody and sparkling.

Jesus Christ Superstar closes today at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

Dan Reiva