Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic musical Jesus Christ Superstar—at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through Nov. 14—got a modern makeover for its 50th anniversary tour. This thrilling production out of London’s West End highlights athletic dancers, an industrial set design, rock-star performances and a Herod with false eyelashes as long as his stiletto heels. The result is an electrifying, musically transcendent experience that stirs the soul.
Though Jesus is superstar of the title, it’s Judas (James T. Justis) who experiences conflicts we can relate to. Justis gives Judas an articulate, powerful voice tinged with anger and sometimes confusion about his role in Jesus’s fate. He is resentful and perhaps jealous of Mary Magdalene’s presence among Jesus’s disciples. He is conflicted about accepting payment for letting authorities know Jesus’s whereabouts, his hands literally stained silver after dipping into their treasure box (“Damned For All Time / Blood Money”).
Jenna Rubaii as Mary is similarly impressive, her strong, clear alto lending an earthiness to Mary’s soothing “Everything’s Alright” and vulnerable “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” She holds her own against Judas and believably cares for Jesus when he is exhausted from healing others, as she sings “forget all about us tonight.”
Jesus himself is interestingly portrayed by Aaron LaVigne in what turns out to be a physically demanding performance. At once a disaffected guitar player and overextended hands-on healer, Jesus is visibly drained. Despite Judas’s warning not to go too far with his son-of-God schtick, Jesus seems hell-bent on seeing it through to its bitter political end. LaVigne absolutely soars in Jesus’s poignant and gut-wrenching “Gesthemane,” seeming to have saved his voice for his outcry to God of “just watch me die!”
Sure enough, priests Caiaphas and Annas decide “This Jesus Must Die” in awesome performances by Alvin Crawford and Tyce Green. With huge stage presence, Crawford’s rich bass pronounces deeply while tenor Green snarls melodically like a heavy-metal rocker.
Also like a rocker dressed in black leather, a tough yet expressive Tommy Sherlock as Pilate is both fierce and sympathetic, genuinely torn over whether to crucify Jesus. And Paul Louis Lessard has some serious fun as Herod in “Herod’s Song,” twirling in gold lame while batting those lashes.
Amid these phenomenal performers, a dynamic “mob” of a dozen dancers (with Sarah Parker especially active as Mob Leader) only want to know “What’s The Buzz” as they fluidly and vigorously own the stage. Each brings the agility, precision and grace demanded by Drew McOnie’s athletic choreography. Asymmetric and softly colored athleisure-wear by Tom Scutt allows the performers a full range of movement while creating a very modern feel.
Also designed by Scutt is the multilevel industrial-feeling set, like a building’s steel frame. Occupying the top is the stellar orchestra of guitars, keyboards, horns and woodwinds, conducted by keyboardist Shawn Gough. At the bottom, Scutt’s tilted, upside-down cross bisects the stage floor, serving as catwalk entryway and elevated performance space. Lighting by Lee Curran complements the raw feeling with spotlights and hazy backlighting.
The production’s nearly nonstop 90-minute pace rolls inexorably forward—despite the small respite of Mary and Peter’s (Tommy McDowell) childlike plea, “Could We Start Again, Please?”—through Jesus’s violent arrest, beating, crowning with thorns, whipping augmented by glitter (a magnificently staged and performed “Trial By Pilate / 39 Lashes”) and very visceral and moving
As directed by Timothy Sheader, this amazing 50th anniversary touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar is simply not to be missed. Jesus (LaVigne) and Judas (Justis) face each other at the end, their drama over, their parts played with passion—both to be commended, along with the entire cast and crew, for giving us an exalted spectacle.