REVIEW: ''Jesus Christ Superstar''—Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
"...One of the most sensorially and aurally ravishing musicals you may ever see!"
Work Light Productions presents the Regent’s Park Theatre London Production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in its 50th Anniversary Tour, performing at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, November 9th through 14th. Directed by Timothy Sheader, Choreographed by Drew McOnie, with Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Lyrics by Tim Rice, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was one of the first sung-through musicals using an effective mix of hard-driving rock tunes and wonderfully soulful ballads, all with a highly theatrical flavor. "Heaven on Their Minds," "Everything's Alright," "I Don't Know How to Love Him," "Gethsemane," and the title number have become classic Broadway numbers of this style.
The hippy tribal rock musical “Hair” may have ushered in a brand-new age for musicals when it originally premiered Off-Broadway in 1967, but it was the British-born "Jesus Christ Superstar," first released as a best-selling concept album three years later, that utterly transformed the landscape. Though the songs were radical and divided religious groups, they conquered the Billboard charts. The show also ushered in Broadway’s “British invasion” of the 1970s and 1980s, setting the stage for such mega-hits as "Cats" and "Les Miserables." In 2018, a live version starring John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene and Alice Cooper as Herod aired on NBC to great embracement.
This hard-rocking look at the last seven days of Jesus Christ's life is anchored by its supercharged focus on its two main characters, Jesus and Judas. Both of them share the affection of their cohort, Mary Magdalene, and both are rendered as helpless victims of a history swirling out of control around them. They are manipulated by the high priests, by the Roman government, and by the crowd longing for things that neither man can provide—unable to halt any of it. In such a situation, who else could they possibly turn to but each other?
The vocal gymnastics, the singing power of these performers, is not to be missed. As Judas, James T. Justis was flat-out incredible with a stunningly effortless voice and a magnetic intensity. Bearing a palpable concern for his fellow man, an explosive rage toward society's excesses, and, in "Superstar," a willingness to give into what he decried, Justis highlighted, then demolished every preconceived notion of the character. His virtuosic turn left you wanting nothing except to witness it again and again.
It was also a brilliant move making Judas the opera's narrator, a figure forced to play a fatal role he didn't really want to take on. Judas is a slightly different character here, yet still bursting with inner turmoil. He is green with jealousy at Jesus’ popularity, sure, but he also seemingly wants to do good in the world. Webber wrote the show as a retelling of the life of Jesus from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Christ to the Roman authorities in the New Testament gospels—painted there as the consummate villain, the epitome of evil with no redemptive value. Some may recall, however, that Judas immediately regrets his betrayal, returns the blood money and later commits suicide.
In the rock opera's first number, "Heaven on their Minds," Jesus is seen with his disciples, rambling to and fro on the stage, his guitar in hand as if his communication to them depended on it. The acting is big on grimaces, with the tall, undercut ash-blond Jesus in a captivating performance, looking like a pretty boy rocker in anguished search of a band. He spends much of his time reserved, almost withdrawn, in the first few scenes. But it's a rich and rewarding choice. By that time, he sees what's coming and knows he can't reroute his fate, so why not be resigned to it? The pain of inevitability fills his eyes in his second-act solo, "Gethsemane," in which he questions God about everything he is and everything he's there to do, delivering with heavy-throttling, ceiling-scraping verve. Aaron LaVigne's performance is risky and takes a while to pay off, but it's worth the wait, taking your heart from his very first note.
As a short-haired, faux-hawked Mary Magdalene, Jenna Rubaii soars, her sweet, potent voice filling Segerstrom Hall with ease. Tommy Sherlock roars a conscience-stricken Pontius Pilate through a nineties grunge lens that is terrifying and weirdly sympathetic. Eric A. Lewis’ Simon Zealotes pops with impossible energy, Alvin Crawford provides stunning support as a deep-voiced Caiaphas, Tyce Green sizzles as a physically-imposing Annas, and Paul Louis Lessard’s scene-stealing Herod who resembles a giant gold bauble wrapped in a fantastically overblown golden lamé drape, is…what can I say?—Unforgettable!
This industrial-looking production—which has giant steel girders enfolding a platform for the live band to perform on and two “fallen” beams forming a 25-foot crucifix on the stage itself (doubling as a runway for the performers)—has a pulsating theatrical energy from the utterly ferocious playing of Shawn Gough’s band to an astonishingly committed company, that make this one of the most sensorially and aurally ravishing musicals you may ever see. Mr. Rice's lyrics are irresistibly loose and impudent. So even if your eyes insist the staging is invariably static, keeping your ears from tingling, your spine from swaying, and your foot from tapping is almost impossible.
Members of the company trudge about in nondescript hipster-slum costumes (by Tom Scutt), usually either trailing Jesus like lost puppies or blocking his way until they get what they demand. The religious leaders who are Jesus's most consistent antagonists are swathed in dark, threatening hues (most of them have voices to match) that leave no uncertainty as to whose side they're on. Although the basic set is not changed at all in the 90-minute show, the temple from which Jesus ejects the moneylenders could easily be mistaken for a hardcore grunge bar, and King Herod's throne room with dancing heads on a plate seems to be inspired by a masochistic massage parlor. But regardless of whether the talented ensemble is worshipping the man they revere as their god in a literal sense or screaming for his death before the governor Pontius Pilate, something is always commanding your attention onstage.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, Lyrics by Tim Rice; music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; Directed by Timothy Sheader, Choreographed by Drew McOnie; Scenic, Hair and Costume Design by Tom Scutt; Lighting Design by Lee Curran; Musical Director/Conductor, Shawn Gough; Co-Sound Design by Keith Caggiano and Nick Lidster; Supervisor, David Holcenberg; Associate Director, Brian Harlan Brooks; Associate Choreographer, Ashley Andrews; Associate Scenic Designers David Allen & David Arsenault; Associate Costume Designer, Poppy Hall; Fight Direction, Rick Sordelet & Christian Kelly-Sordelet; Casting, Wojcik/Seay Casting; Booking and Marketing Direction, Bond Theatrical; Company Manager, Arthur J.M. Callahan;, Denny Berry; Production Stage Manager, Alan D. Knight; General Management, Work Light Productions; Production Management, Port City Technical; Presented by the Really Useful Superstar Company Inc.
WITH: Aaron LaVigne (Jesus); James T. Justis (Judas); Jenna Rubaii (Mary); Tommy Sherlock (Pilate); Paul Louis Lessard (Herod); Alvin Crawford (Caiaphas); Tyce Green (Annas); Eric A. Lewis (Simon); Tommy McDowell (Peter); Sarah Parker (Mob Leader); Brian Golub (First Priest); Garfield Hammonds (Second Priest); Darrell T. Joe (Third Priest); Quiana Holmes, Jenny Mollet, Sandyredd (Soul Singers); Brian Golub, Garfield Hammonds, Sanyredd (Peter’s Accusers); David Andre, Sara Andreas, Wesley J. Barnes, Brian Golub, Brittany Rose Hammond, Garfield Hammonds, Quiana Holmes, Darrell T. Joe, Sheila Jones, Jacob Lacopo, Eric A. Lewis, Paul Louis Lessard, Tommy McDowell, Jenny Mollet, Sarah Parker, Erick Patrick, Sanyredd and Chelsea Williams (Ensemble). Courtney Arango, Milena J. Comeau, Lydia Ruth Dawson, Derek Ferguson, Danny McHugh, Cooper Stanton (Swings).
The Orchestra includes: Music Director, Keyboard I: SHAWN GOUGH; Associate Conductor, Keyboard II: MATTHEW CROFT; Bass: RANDALL KLITZ; Guitar I: MIKE FREDERICK; Guitar II: NICK DICKERSON; Drums: TONY DE AUGUSTINE; French Horn: ANSON CARROLL; Trumpet I: JOEY PERO; Trumpet II, Keyboard III: EMMA STANLEY; Woodwinds: JOE LaROCCA; Trombone/Tuba: CRAIG WATSON; Electronic Music Design: MIDIOMATIC, LLC - ETHAN DEPPE; Music Coordinator: JOHN MILLER.
“JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR” runs 90 minutes without an intermission. Performed Thur, Nov 11th @7:30PM; Fri, Nov 12th @7:30PM; Sat, Nov 13th @2:00PM & 7:30PM; Sun, Nov 14th @1:00PM & 6:30PM. Please visit www.scfta.org for tickets and further information. For a special discount to readers of The Show Report, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts will offer an additional 20% off tickets using the following special promo code: SOSOGOOD.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Matthew Murphy