Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Lori Dana
When lyricist Tim Rice began the first of his many collaborations with musical wunderkind Andrew Lloyd Webber in the late 1960s, he could never have imagined the pervasiveness of celebrity culture in Western societies of the 21st Century. Before Americans turned the private lives of the rich and famous (as well as the chronically impoverished, addicted, and criminal) into 24/7 reality “entertainment”, the idea of a rock “opera” based on the life of a major religious figure was considered nothing short of blasphemous.
Rock operas were not new. The 1967 Off- Broadway musical Hair (which glorified the largely unpopular hippie culture and featured unabashed onstage nudity) broke down many barriers for musical theater works based on controversial, contemporary material. Whatever resistance remained was summarily blown away a couple years later by the debut of British band The Who’s Tommy, which debuted as a “concept album” and ended with live opera house productions and a major motion picture. Unable to find backers willing to risk investing in a staged production of Superstar, Webber and Rice put out a concept album of their own. Every teenager who considered themselves a fan of cutting edge music in the early seventies had a copy of Jesus Christ Superstar in their album collection.
The eventual theatrical productions of Webber and Rice’s first big hit were a disappointment to fans of the album, however. Slick “Broadway-ized” musical arrangements and soft-pedaled characters eventually won over skeptical musical theater buffs, but lost many of the work’s original fans. One of those fans is happy to report that Lyric Opera’s current production of Jesus Christ Superstar (direct from the 2017 London Regent’s Park production) completely rocks out, in a way that even the original album never could. Those teenagers of the 70s, their children, and grandchildren are in for an amphitheater worthy spectacle.
What they won’t see is a dramatic production with fully developed characters. Director Timothy Sheader admits he is “less interested in Jesus as a character, and more in the performer who is singing the role.” This is obvious to the audience immediately because of the way the production is staged, with major characters singing their numbers into hand-held mics (in addition to the ubiquitous headsets) giving Lyric’s Superstar the visual flavor of a concert performance. The director’s approach could be somewhat disconcerting to an audience expecting a typical musical theater production, but the voices are so incredibly powerful, the costuming so provocative, and the dancing so over the top and jubilant, that we soon forget that this musical tour de force once had a story line threaded between musical numbers. And after all, classical opera has, more often than not, been based on the flimsiest of storylines, sketchy narratives that simply provide a framework for magnificent arias and choruses. So why should a rock opera be any different?
What can’t be forgiven are the continuing challenges the Civic Opera House seems to face when it comes to amplification. The muddy sound quality of the matinee performance we attended made it very tough to make out Rice’s marvelously clever lyrics, especially in the chorus numbers. This is not a problem for life-long fans of the show that know every line by heart, but for newcomers to Jesus Christ Superstar such technical difficulties could severely affect audience perception and enjoyment (especially given the director’s approach to character development). Now in the sixth year of its musical theater initiative, Lyric’s sound experts should be on top of this issue by now. It remains to be seen if Lyric’s sound professionals can shake the kinks out of the microphone cords before they are very much further into the schedule of performances.
Despite the inevitable technical glitches that crop up at the beginning of a theatrical run, few shows in recent memory explode out of the gate the way this production does. Break-out performances by Ryan Shaw as Judas, Michael Cunio as Pilate, and Shaun Fleming as Herod provide a suitably conflicted, corrupted, and depraved backdrop for the all-too-human struggles of Heath Saunders’ Jesus. Shaw’s powerful voice, cultivated in the Pentecostal tradition of the Deep South, is crystal clear and pitch-perfect, and his delivery straightforward and deeply soulful; the perfect vehicle to express the moral dilemma of Christ’s betrayer. Cunio’s Pilate is a punk rock tour-de-force, while the debauchery of Fleming’s Herod is nothing short of breathtaking. But where does this leave Jesus? Exactly where Rice imagined him: a simple man caught up in the self-induced ecstasy and mob-created hype of his “followers,” the first recorded victim of a society creating and then devouring their “superstar.” Saunders does an admirable job of conveying Jesus’ uncertainty and confusion in the first act, and as his character is galvanized in fear and then certainty, his vocal interpretation follows suit and we become aware that he too is a passionate and powerful singer. As his lover, Mary Magdalene, Off-Broadway star Jo Lampert is in the background more than we’d like in Sheader’s interpretation of Superstar. The soothing “Everything’s Alright” and her signature ballad, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” seem hurried, giving the only female lead less weight than her character deserves, especially considering the strong reactions this theoretical relationship still evokes. The large cast of primary singers in Jesus Christ Superstar swells to epic proportions with the addition of an electrifying chorus of singer-dancers who provide a high energy hip-hop vibe to the crowd scenes, and devotional reverence to the production’s contemplative moments. The biggest surprise is the fabulous stage band that delivers a foundation of hard driving rock which brings out aspects of Webber’s music that have been neglected for far too long.
Lyric Opera brings to Superstar everything that a production of this magnitude needs to make it world-class. Technical capabilities, staging wizardry, a singular venue, and the flawless support of the superb Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus create a stage experience that is unrivaled right now on American soil. Rock music and passion have always gone hand in hand. Lyric’s Jesus Christ Superstar is a shining testament to that.
(“Jesus Christ Superstar,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago. Through May 20 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
Jesus Christ Superstar production photos by Todd Rosenberg