Review: “Jesus Christ Superstar”

A scene from “Jesus Christ Superstar” now playing at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., through May 20. – Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: through May 20
Tickets: $35-$159
Phone: 312-827-5600

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

The opening night audience for Lyric Opera’s American premiere of director Timothy Sheader’s Olivier Award-winning revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which originated at London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2016, was packed with fans of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock opera that started as a “concept” album in 1970. Many of them knew all the songs by heart, had seen multiple productions, and applauded and cheered at all the right places.

There is no question that the show is quite a spectacle. A departure from the Lyric’s usual post-season tradition of staging a classic American musical, it arguably fits the definition of “opera” more closely because it’s sung-through and everything is on a grand scale. Both the orchestra and cast have been beefed up for this side of the Atlantic, so that there now are 39 actors and 37 musicians, including close to four dozen from the Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra. This may be the biggest “JCS” ever.

The notion that “more is more” extends to the choreography. Choreographer Drew McOnie keeps everyone in perpetual motion. In the early scenes, Jesus’s followers, dressed in hoodies, leggings, and sneakers, engage in energetic workouts. Later on, their movement becomes increasingly frenzied, as the mood of the crowd changes. McOnie also introduces clever bits for more prominent players, like the way the priests’ staffs morph into mics.

Besides the street sweats, Tom Scutt’s costumes range from a tight black-leather suit for rocker Pilate (Michael Cunio) to a fantastical gold outfit (think David Bowie) with a 28-foot-long cape for Herod (Shaun Fleming). Scutt’s set combines a ramp and a multilevel wood-and metal box arrangement—the terrific rhythm section is tucked away on it—with a forest’s worth of trees, perhaps a tribute to Regent’s Park or Gethsemane, or both. Oddly enough, this leaves relatively little space for the dancing, though the ramp has multiple functions from runway to Last Supper table, with the apostles briefly deployed in a tableau resembling Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting.
Sheader says in a program essay that he wanted to get back to the rock concert roots of “JCS,” and this means that the performers—led by Heath Saunders as Jesus, Ryan Shaw as Judas, and Jo Lambert as Mary—often sing directly to the audience, and sometimes to each other. They belt out—even screech—the big numbers like the tortured “Gethsemane,” and even the gentler ones, such as “Everything’s Alright,” have a hard edge more in keeping with our own times than with the hippy-dippy 1970s. My companion, who knows the album by heart, was disappointed that Lampert’s Mary didn’t have the sweet voice he was used to for “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

A corollary of the concert style is a lack of emphasis on coherent storytelling, and as someone who is not a “JCS” aficionado, I found the details hard to follow. I couldn’t understand half the lyrics, and some of the staging was confusing. It wasn’t clear that “Pilate’s Dream” was a dream at all, and although I got it when Judas dipped his hands in silver glitter rather than being handed a bag of gold, the way he hangs himself is so odd that when he later returns, at first I didn’t quite realize he was supposed to be a ghost.

Sheader also misses a couple of staging bets. He has the cast run down the theater aisles at the beginning but ignores other possibilities. When Jesus’s followers link hands and circle the playing area while singing “Hosanna,” I kept thinking how moving it would be if they circled among us, even if it meant adding a couple of extra choruses.

Although this “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a major event and not to be missed if you love the show, when a friend asked if she should see it, I hesitated—and then suggested that if she has limited time and/or money, she should go to “Sweeney Todd” at Theo-Ubique or “Memphis” at Porchlight instead.