“Jesus Christ Superstar”—the mega-hit that launched Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to star status in musical theatre—returns to the Main Stage of Thalian Hall, courtesy of Opera House Theatre Company (OHTC). Narrated by Judas (Richard Rosario), the show loosely follows the last week of Jesus’ (Jason Aycock) life, leading up to the crucifixion. From the opening song, “Heaven on Their Minds,” as Rosario wails out a plea of “Jesus!”, two things are clear: 1. This evening will explore the tortured journey of the man remembered for betrayal; and 2. Rosario has a voice that should be singing to stadiums.
Jesus has a loyal group of apostles: Peter (Bradley Barefoot), Bartholomew (Greg Beddingfield), Thaddeus (Christian Dionne), James (Kellen Hanson), Matthew (Erik Maasch), Thomas (Linda Carlisle Markas), Simon (Ty Myatt), James (Maggie Stone), Phillip (Terrill Williams), John (Jordan Wolfe), and Andrew (Lily Zuckerman). His teachings have gained strength and numbers. People clamor to him and his message. But Judas worries: Is there some mission creep going on here? Isn’t this supposed to be about feeding the poor? When did Jesus become a god or king instead of just a man doing good for others? And what is going on with Mary Magdalene (Kendra Goehring-Garrett)—this former prostitute who keeps hanging around? This can’t be good for Jesus’ image; furthermore, is this really what he wants? A woman of her reputation? If Mary is there, what about Jesus’ best friend—his right-hand man and his major domo? Where does that leave old Judas? Out in the cold? Not to mention, they are starting to be a thorn in the side of authorities. Isn’t anyone worried about that?
In other words, Judas is weighted with worry. And he is right to worry, especially about the authorities. Caiaphas (George Domby), Annas (John Markas) and their cohorts (Erik Maasch, Terrill Williams, Jordan Wolfe) are determined to put a stop to the trouble that Jesus and his followers are causing, which they detail in the disheartening but catchy song “This Jesus Must Die.” Watching the group in action, as they move through their options and eventually to their solution, I could not help but be reminded of the observation that some of the greatest evil in the world is perpetrated by civil servants “just doing their job.”
In her director’s note Suellen Yates recounts seeing the show for the first time and how it made the story of Jesus’ sacrifice real to her in a way it hadn’t been before. The OHTC production certainly makes the humanity and struggles of each of the characters—not just Jesus—incredibly personable and flawed. If anyone is to be pitied, perhaps it is Robin Dale Robertson’s Pontius Pilate. I most identified with his plight: backed into a corner, forced to follow through with something he doubts at every turn. Yet, if he were willing to, he could end all of this with a word of command. Instead, he is on a train he can’t or won’t stop. I ached for him.
Goehring-Garrett’s rendition of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” is a great showcase for her beautiful voice, which frankly is draw to get me in the door anytime she is onstage. But watching her insinuate herself as Jesus’ helpmeet, partner and power behind the throne—in other words his de facto wife—authenticated her performance. Course of action is all-too-familiar to women everywhere, especially to any woman who has ever loved a man in a position of importance—political, religious or business. Her response to Peter’s denial of Jesus is a tear-jerking moment. I didn’t know for whom I felt worse: Peter or Magdalene.
Jeff Phillips’ cameo as Herod, that great builder of palaces and swimming pools, in “King Herod’s Song” was my date’s favorite part of the evening. Well, almost. About 15 minutes into the show, he exclaimed, “This is the best lighting I’ve seen since we went to the Met!” A few years ago we were lucky enough to attend the Metropolitan Opera. Whether or not audiences enjoy Verdi, the production value at the Met is unparalleled. By virtue of money, space and resources, it’s incomparable to anything one could expect to see here. After 40 years in the film business, mostly working as a gaffer (or lighting designer for film), Jock does not hand out compliments about something as sacred as lighting if he does not mean it. I have to agree with him: Dallas LaFon paints with light using a striking and memorable palate.
Terry Collins’ set is practical and evocative of a vaguely ancient Middle Eastern area, able to change from a hovel to a palace as needed. But it is LaFon’s lighting that makes change in location, mood and power comprehensible.
If only the sound was consistent, it would be a perfect evening, but the microphones for the singers kept shorting. With a completely sung-through show, the audience must hear every lyric—especially when Rosario sings because Judas’ struggle is so real, so palpable, so soul-destroying for him. He is a man in the ultimate torment. If only his voice wasn’t so beautiful, so perfect for rock ballads, I wouldn’t have been wiping back tears at his performance. Even fans of Ben Vereen and/or Carl Anderson’s performances in the role will find Rosario brings a different Judas to light, with a voice that will leave everyone wanting more.
For many people “Jesus Christ Superstar” has become a worship experience, as it is essentially a passion play set to rock music. Others object to a depiction of Christ as a flawed human who wrestles with his destiny. Whatever lens through which one chooses to see, this cast will touch the hearts and lift the spirits of many. It’s an incredible evening that celebrates the greatest story ever told and the beauty of the many ways we continue to retell it to each other, while we try to learn how to live by a set of teachings that were and continue to be revolutionary.