In October 1971, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice debuted their new rock opera, a reimagining of the greatest story ever told…well, a portion of it, at least. In 90 minutes and one grand act, Jesus Christ Superstar recounts the last moments of the Son of God, from the apostles who followed him and his teachings to Judas’s heartbreaking betrayal to those final ghastly moments strung up on the cross. More than 50 years later, the show still possesses a contemporary flair, its electric guitars and belted melodies packing a powerful punch as the touring company finally makes its way through Chicago after a pandemic delay.
The production staged now through July 31 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre downtown brings a staging first seen in 2016 at London’s Regent’s Park Theatre to Chicago audiences, a version that leans into the story’s more apocalyptic tones without sacrificing energetic choreography and a general flair for showmanship. This version, directed by Timothy Sheader and choreographed by Drew McOnie, also made a brief appearance at the Lyric Opera in 2018; if you missed it then, the cast bringing these classic numbers to life this time around is enough reason to set aside time to catch this classic for the first time or yet again.
Sheader’s staging, realized by Tom Scutt (who is credited with set, costume and make-up design), puts all of the production in one setting, steel scaffolding with the band on the upper level and the stage bisected by what we can easily tell is an inverted cross. Already, there’s no mistaking where or when we are. Clad in a sort of grayscale athleisure wear, a boisterous ensemble emerges after a rock overture, and there in the middle, in more white than anyone else on stage, is the man himself, Jesus (Aaron LaVigne). Soon, we’ve met Mary Magdalene (Jenna Rubaii) and Judas (Omar Lopez-Cepero), both struggling in different ways in their relationships with this remarkable man; and then there’s Caiaphas (Alvin Crawford) and Pilate (Tommy Sherlock), the men who, with the help of King Herod (Paul Louis Lessard), will bring that same man down.
Squeezed into the Palace’s proscenium arch, Scutt’s staging feels slightly claustrophobic, mostly in the moments when the choreography can’t do much more than dance in a literal circle around itself, stage left. This large ensemble doesn’t have much room to play with, and it shows. But with such powerhouse voices behind the microphones (principal cast members carry handheld wireless mics to deliver their lines), this tight staging is soon forgotten. From LaVigne’s wrought and raw “Gethsemane” (though I do wish he’d put the guitar down sooner) to Rubaii’s tender “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the show’s most noteworthy numbers are given quite their due each time. Eric A. Lewis quite literally stopped the show after his solo as Simon, a praise number so powerful it felt something like being taken to church. But the star of this production, above and beyond these already impressive talents, is Omar Lopez-Cepero as Judas, a role notoriously exhausting in its range, both emotionally and vocally. I’d say Lopez-Cepero never breaks a sweat which, metaphorically, may be true (though not literally); he makes it look easy (and sound amazing).
Perhaps as a function of the tight staging, the band essentially on top of each other for the duration of the show and the actors belting their lines out into mics right up against their mouths, the one noticeable issue with the production is in its sound mixing. Voices—and therefore Rice’s clever, contemporary lyrics—are often drowned behind screaming guitars and pounding drums. And there are a few moments in the production that seem a bit too new-agey for their own good, like the incongruence of having handfuls of glitter thrown at Jesus to symbolize the 40 lashes he suffers before being crucified. But these slight nitpicks didn’t stop my heart from breaking anew as this God among men is put to death. Though, like Titanic and other tragedies, we know exactly where all this is heading, there’s nevertheless a bittersweetness to seeing it all play out yet again, a talented group of professionals realizing for us all over again a show that remains as effective now as it was half a century ago.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through July 31 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 w. Randolph St. Tickets are $27-104.50 plus fees. Masks are recommended while you are in the theater building but they are not required.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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