I don’t like musicals.
I’m an atheist.
I love Jesus Christ Superstar.
I was a budding theater nerd when my cool uncle Tommy turned me on to The Who’s Tommy in 1969. My sister and I found religion with JCSS in 1970. We’d play the brown London double album after returning from Presbyterian Easter services to combine worship and rock n’ roll. I choreographed “Simon Zealotes” for a high school talent show. I saw a local college production with a female Judas.
I adored Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan as Jesus, nailing the high notes of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s complicated score. I dug Tim Rice’s funny and accessible lyrics: “One thing I’ll say for him, Jesus is cool;” the attention to early marketing with “Did Mohammed move the mountain or was that just PR?” and “Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication;” and the deeply existential idea that “to conquer death you only have to die.”
That Eastertime JCSS ethos is back; first with NBC’s live television broadcast on the actual Sunday, and now with the North American premiere of Timothy Sheader’s Olivier Award-winning London production at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, conducted by Tom Deering (also part of the original creative team).
This stage production was first produced in 2016 at Regent’s Park Open-Air Theatre, and looks similar to, but smaller than, the TV set—a series of stacked platforms around a walkway, backed by greenery, containing the six rock musicians and providing entrance and exit space for the throngs. On the Lyric stage, however, it seemed smaller and more claustrophobic, hiding some faces and interactions. Set designer Tom Scutt also created the costumes, a more effective and integrated mélange of sneakers, gray sweats and zouave pants.
The youthful leads wore white. Heath Saunders was Jesus, looked like Drake, and had played a smaller part in the TV version. Ryan Shaw was Judas, telling this origin story from his point of view, starting the two-hour tale with “My mind is clearer now…”
Jo Lampert was a gender fluid Mary, who best commanded focus during her solos. A perennial opera issue, intimate connections among characters and audiences can be lost, but Lampert and Michael Cunio as a sympathetic Pilate managed to stand and belt their solos while still creating human interactions. Simon (Mykal Kilgore) could have been, well, more zealous.
Jesus, Pilate and Peter (Andrew Mueller) also accompanied themselves on guitar, underscoring the rock theme (or perhaps a nod to the spate of American Idol-type shows). There was also a passing of hand-held microphones that seemed to impede the flow, plus a lot of fog and glitter, which was oddly tossed to represent Christ’s flogging, in such quantity that it should remain in the stage floor until the Second Coming.
Crowd choreography (by Drew McOnie) was fun and festive, but obtrusive with the Pharisees, who were often flipping microphone stands and facing upstage during their songs, obscuring Cavin Cornwall’s basso profundo as Caiaphas and Joseph Anthony Byrd’s Annas, who gives call-and-response in tenor and falsetto.
This production is passionate and accessible, but more connection is expected from the Holy Trinity of Rice, Webber and Lyric. Yet one of the most powerful conceits of the show and this production is that “He’s a man, he’s just man.” Both Mary and Judas sing that song, indicating that the divinity is not as important as the relationship. And that’s terribly true in these times—eschew the dogma, remember the humanity.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, through May 20. Single tickets start at $35, and $99 stage-front seating over the orchestra pit is also available for the first time in the company’s history of presenting Broadway musicals. Call 312-827-5600.