Jesus Christ Superstar’s 50th Anniversary tour returns to Chicago with most of its manic glory intact

Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman

The Rock Opera Jesus Christ Superstar is about as iconic a musical as the modern era has produced. The familiar territory of this show–not only does the story hold no surprises to anyone even remotely familiar with the gospels, but the music, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, was introduced first as a concept album that made its way into almost everyone’s collection–forces almost every production to find new ways of presenting it.

The production that has just landed at the Cadillac Palace Theatre is the same one that played the Lyric in 2018. In that production (and this one) director Timothy Sheader and choreographer Drew McOnie provide a new look for Jesus’ followers: they are more easily perceived as an out-of-control mob here than in any previous production I can recall seeing. Sheader has them run onto the stage in impassioned ecstasy, overwhelming it with their sheer numbers and exuberance. From the start, it is easy to see why this mob could be seen as a threat by the Pharisees.

Tom Scutt’s set design, which includes space on the second level for Shawn Gough’s wonderful 15-piece orchestra, features a large inverted cross-shaped platform. It feels a bit more crowded here than it did at the Lyric, but that’s OK. (Crosses, by the way, abound in this production; dancers carry lighted ones; people are selling them in the Temple; they seem to pop up everywhere, though they obviously were not symbolic of Christ until after the crucifixion.) The combination of these elements with McOnie’s frantic choreography (featuring wild, chaotic arm movements that at times make the crowd seem less than human) and dramatic lighting by Lee Curran gives Sheader’s Superstar extremely high energy and goes a long way toward explaining why it won an Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival when it premiered in London. There are brilliant quiet moments as well, such as the tableau during “The Last Supper” when the apostles and Christ smoothly arrange themselves into the positions from the Da Vinci painting. 

Where this production feels less successful than the Lyric’s is in the casting. Aaron LaVigne has a fine voice as Jesus but lacks the dynamism and charisma necessary to make us believe that this manic bunch of groupies would follow him. (On the plus side, it does make their later betrayal easier to comprehend, so there’s that.) LaVigne keeps his energy under control even in “The Temple,” which basically means we lose him in the writhing mob, and the decision to have him speak some of his lines denies them the power he shows himself capable of in “Gethsemane,” Jesus’ signature song. (OTOH, Sheader has him playing guitar during that song, which makes a powerful, emotional moment feel like a concert. I’d argue that the entire production should have ditched the handheld mics for similar reasons. Jenna Rubaii’s Mary Magdalene, for example, too often finds herself stationed behind a microphone stand.)

Of course, it is Judas who is really the stealth star of this show, and Omar Lopez-Cepero is fabulous in the role (give or take the mics). From the plaintive melody of “Heaven on Their Minds” to the anthemic “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Lopez-Cepero exudes the unease that his character feels as he starts to perceive that things are far more out of control than Jesus is willing to acknowledge. LaVigne’s Jesus doesn’t luxuriate in the adulation of frantic followers very much; he’s mostly the one walking through the crowd with no discernible purpose as they dance furiously around him. Still, Lopez-Cepero’s Judas constantly tries in vain to get him to see the dangers inherent in a mob. His death scene (hope I didn’t spoil it for anyone, but if I did: read the Bible), may be a bit out of control, but hey: he’s killing himself.

As Mary, the only female lead of the production, Rubaii’s lovely voice can make you forget her unfortunate staging, and her take on such songs as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Could We Start Again Please” is lovely. (She shares the latter with Tommy McDowell’s gentle Peter). Mary’s heart is always open and Rubaii invites us in.

The Pharisees are led by Alvin Crawford as the deep-voiced, murderous Caiaphas and Tyce Green as his tenor sidekick Annas. The actors carry their roles admirably but are not helped by odd choreography that makes them rather comical in pivotal moments. Sometimes it’s better to let actors just be still; it would have made a better contrast with the writhing mob. (The same can be said of the Roman Guard, actors in masks reminiscent of Roman statues, who are far more menacing when they are just standing there than when they are moving.)

As to the leaders in Jerusalem, Tommy Sherlock is a brilliant Pontius Pilate. From his revisiting of his dark dream (“And then I heard them mentioning my name and leaving me the blame”) to his confrontation with Jesus, which leads to lashing and eventually crucifixion, Sherlock makes us care for a character that history perceives as a villain. (He even gets a mic drop, perhaps the only good thing about so much reliance on handhelds.) His emotional take on his role contrasts well with Paul Louis Lessard’s Herod, who is almost obscenely flamboyant from the moment he first appears in an absurd golden outfit that is too clearly intended for humorous effect. Within the broad comic strokes, Lessard does his best to help us to concentrate on the furious, deranged nature of his song, making us almost able to forget that ridiculous gold outfit.

Speaking of gold…

Sheader’s version of the musical features a Promethean level of glitter; showering the stage with glitter from high above, Scutt’s glitter shines like a million fiery stars. In addition, Sheader uses it during the lashing scene: each time Jesus is lashed a new fistful of glitter is unleashed upon him. He starts the scene glistening with blood; he ends it glistening with gold, which may be a comment on the “golden” blood of the Messiah, or may just be a visual effect that got out of control. (It made the woman behind me laugh, which surely is not its intention.) Judas too ends up coated with glittery paint: silver all over his hands to signify the 30 pieces of silver for which he sold his friend and leader, an effect that works quite well.

In addition to Scutt’s set and costumes, other technical elements of the show are impressive. Lighting has always been a key aspect of this musical, and Curran’s inventive design is a perfect complement for everything Sheading, Scutt and McOnie are trying to do. During the crucifixion scene, the lights are almost one of the stars. Sound, too, which is an often unsung but obviously critical part of any musical, is perfect; Nick Lidster and Keith Caggiono’s design is clear and powerful, even a bit playful where they attach microphones to the Pharisees’ staffs.

Though his lead performers don’t always stand up to the ones Chicago got to see at the Lyric a few years ago, Sheader has created a version of the play that stuns with its high-energy choreography, and the show has rarely seemed so alive. It may have worked better if he had not burdened his actors with guitars and handheld mics, but still this is a highly creative version of a musical so many of us have known for many decades and a treat for Chicago theatregoers.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a Broadway in Chicago production now playing through July 31 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Times vary, so you’d best check the website.

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