The glitter and the glory: Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyric Opera House

Classical Music Critic

What: “Jesus Christ Superstar”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through May 20

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” the now-famous rock opera, started out as a concept album as the 1960s ended. From there, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice saw their creation get serious radio play, move onto Broadway and London’s West End, and become a 1973 movie. Fans, including myself, admire how the work takes opera seriously (for example, it is sung-through and relies on the music to express and advance the narrative). Yet it is also true to rock, with raucous and thrilling electric guitar lines, and dramatic and screeching cries all within a palette of wide-ranging music with influences of funk, soul, honky-tonk, folk and much more.

For several seasons now Lyric Opera has closed out its performance season with a musical theater work and this year it is “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Saturday night, the press opening, saw the house packed with an eager audience who responded with glee and joy to the stylized story of the last days of Jesus Christ.

Lyric has assembled a strong cast with singers of admirable musical skill. Heath Saunders as Jesus is compelling, and he creates a character of rich layers. Saunders sings well in Act I but really makes his mark in Act II in “Gethsemane,” as he agonizes over what he knows is to come. This extended number has a long, slow growth of sound and force which is absolutely gripping.

Ryan Shaw is marvelous as Judas. Tim Rice’s telling of the Jesus story is very sympathetic to the man who betrays Jesus and essentially tells the story from his perspective. Shaw sings with both intensity and charisma and his characterization has the doggedness of a contemporary political partisan.

Michael Cunio is a scary Pilate. His power and authority are clear in Act II, and what makes this role difficult is the short, quiet, gauzy song in Act I (Pilate’s Dream), which requires nuance and gentleness. Cunio is not bad in that, but he is near-perfect the rest of his time on stage.

Shaun Fleming is hilarious as Herod and is all the more commendable in that he doesn’t sacrifice the music to draw out the humor. In a show with mostly unforgettable costumes, Herod’s eye-catching gold robe with a 28-foot cape is a marvel.

The Jewish priests all offer excellent vocals, led by Cavin Cornwall as Caiaphas (with a deep and compelling voice) and Joseph Anthony Byrd as Annas (with an appropriately snide sound).

Mary is sung with soothing calm by Jo Lambert, while Mykal Kilgore is a hard rocking Simon Zealotes.

There are 37 musicians (31 from the Lyric Opera Orchestra), brought out of the pit and located at the back or rather high on stage (there are multiple levels of staging). Conductor Tom Deering is effective throughout, with apt pacing and what must surely be difficult coordination given his location at the back of the stage. Rock fans will swoon when they hear the incredible volumes the music reaches — I’ve never heard anything so loud at Lyric before. Much of the time this is achieved without any problem, but occasionally the amplification does real damage to the clarity of sound. (That may actually be intended.)

Director Timothy Sheader has taken an odd approach. Although he has a large stage in a major house, presumably with money to create evocative sets and costumes, his conceit is that the production should look like a concert. That approach was a hit in an outdoor theater in London, but seems foolish in an opera house. “Our production is more about authentic musicmaking than strict narrative telling,” Sheader writes in the program, and it is all too evident in the production. Sheader’s biggest contribution is to make a fetish out of the microphone. The staffs of the Jewish priests turn into mic stands which are sometimes used in an uncomfortable manner, Herod’s mic is outfitted with a creepy ornamental skull, singers walk away from what little action there is to sing at a microphone, and so on. This reaches an apogee of weirdness when it is not Judas who is hanged, but merely his microphone on a ridiculously long cord. Dead mic equals dead man, it seems.

There is a lot of dancing, some of which is interesting and helps advance the story, although often the dancer’s movements are puzzling and look more like nervous tics than considered art.

The 39 lashes Pilate orders for Jesus are admittedly something difficult to stage. There was nothing wrong with the attackers using faux or even no whips. The score makes each lash strike clear. But Sheader has each cut of the whip accompanied by glitter. It’s like children playing: let me show how terrible you’ve been by tossing pretty glitter at you. (All told there is 90 pounds of glitter used every night, so you know they take glitter seriously backstage in this production.)

If the glitter doesn’t offer enough tinkling and winking light, there are several rows of bright lights which point not at the stage and the actors but at the audience. It will make you close your eyes from time to time for reasons I cannot fathom.

Even though the creative team has chosen to emphasize the concert elements of the piece, rather than the overall music-drama of it, this is not fatal. The music is enough and there are moments of spectacle which end up seeming like bonus moments. This is music worth hearing by singers who know how to make it breathe.