Photo: Broadway Across America
Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
Would you believe that Jesus Christ Superstar has been a part of our musical theatre repertoire for 50 years now? That almost stops me in my tracks as I can recall singing choral arrangements of this production when I was but a budding and promising middle school student. Songs such as “What’s the Buzz”, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the title song have been part of the shaping of many a young singer.
So here we are celebrating this Golden Anniversary with a different look from what first originated in London’s West End or on Broadway. This touring production from Regent Park Theatre of London captures the essence of the idea: A Rock Opera.
While there isn’t any true opera within the folds of the show, vocal prowess and strength are absolute necessities throughout. Luckily the performers who graced Whitney Hall’s stage certainly showed versatile musicianship and physicality. I likened the performance style to The Who’s Tommy or the recently aired Jesus Christ Superstar – Live on NBC.
The story of Jesus told here unfolds during the time frame that is commonly recognized as Easter Week. Within the first scene we see the commoners/villagers begin to take notice of the young Prophet, partly because of the profile that is generated by the disciples (“What’s the Buzz?”) to the very last scene with the recitation of John 19:41.
Within this short week or so Jesus sees and feels love and compassion, but He also endures heart-wrenching emotional and physical pain. While He is certainly the focal point of the story, I have found that the story, as it is told through Judas, is just as important, as he experiences many of the same highs and lows, albeit self-inflicted. It is a beautiful testament to an actor’s abilities when they are able to relay the thoughts and expressions of their character with power. If done correctly there could be an absolute roller coaster of emotion through the course of the show.
This group hit almost all of those notes.
While there are no small parts, there are certainly those that are more forward or essential to the story. I’d like to recognize a couple of the “smaller roles”, those of Caiaphas, King Herod, Peter, Simon, and Annas. Peter, played by Tommy McDowell, and Eric A. Lewis’ Simon, while essential to the story and vocally sound, could have been amped up a bit. Paul Louis Lessard’s King Herod was fantastic. I could see and hear a channeling of several different rock gods within his delivery, not to mention his fantastic wardrobe (costumes by Tom Scutt). I heard and saw David Bowie, Elton John, and maybe a touch of Freddy Mercury. Tyce Green’s Annas had that smirky, nasty, nasal sound that I have come to expect for the role.
One of the issues that I have had in the past with Jesus Christ Superstar is that while many companies don’t have a problem finding able voiced tenors and baritones to fill the main roles, they usually assign a baritone to the role of Caiaphas. Imagine my delight when I heard true bass sounds coming from Alvin Crawford. I couldn’t help breaking out an inaudible “Wow” when he reached the bottom, a C#2/Dflat2. Thrilling.
As much as I wanted to enjoy Tommy Sherlock’s Pilate, I had a very difficult time hearing and understanding him in every song that he performed. Perhaps the microphone was too close to the mouth or it was bad sound mixing, I’m not sure, but it did not sit well in the ears.
Jenna Rubaii as Mary was pretty much what I expected her to be…a nice voice with a gentle, calming nature about her.
Aaron LaVigne’s Jesus had the look, the voice, and the physicality, but it was missing some of the emotion. During his scene in the Garden, he took up a guitar to sing “Gethsemane” for most of the time. While I appreciated the musicianship, I feel that it distracted from a pivotal emotional point in the story. Vocally, I’d dare say he came from the Ted Neeley school of how to perform this role.
Far and away the best performance came from James Delisco Beeks as Judas. As I mentioned earlier, this is almost as much Judas’ story and Mr. Beeks did not disappoint. He has the vocal range for the demanding role and is able to interject the necessary emotion into his actions. His “Damned For All Time” and “Judah’s Death” is undeniably powerful.
Perhaps the best singing/acting/dancing of the evening came from the ensemble. Using choral, trio, and solo vehicles within the show, the ensemble was tight, not rushed, and had some of the most luscious harmonies that are found within the show, such as “The Last Supper”. Speaking of “The Last Supper”, the tableau was wonderfully assembled. Also, “39 Lashes” was unlike any version I’ve ever seen.
The orchestra/band, under the baton of Shawn Gough, was for the most part right on target, save for some dissonance that I heard within the Overture and a few other places that centered within the woods and winds.
The choreography by Drew McOnie was visually energetic and certainly modern. While I wasn’t quite fond of the set design that looked like boxes stacked on top of each other, I did appreciate the cross that acted as a catwalk, focal point of the action, and of course served an important function within the climax the show.
Despite some issues that I had, this is a Jesus Christ Superstar that truly embraces how significant the music and story are and perhaps even more importantly, elicits introspection within the hearts and minds of the audience.
Jesus Christ Superstar
January 7 – 12, 2020
PNC Broadway In Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.