NME After Print: Jesus Christ Superstar
In a vibrant and stunning swoop, “Jesus Christ Superstar” leapt into its opening at Popejoy Hall on Thursday night and showed the audience exactly what “all the buzz is about”. Lead by director Timothy Sheader, this 50th anniversary tour brought with it a new and refreshing take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous musical, one that is thrilling from beginning to end, regardless of if this is your first time seeing this piece or your 99th. The show, told through Judas’ perspective, focuses on the final events in the life of Jesus Christ, and the twisted betrayals that lead to his crucifixion. Sheader’s tour breathes fresh life into a show that has touched audiences for 50 years, with a heavy focus on Jesus as a superstar idol. The whole show feels like a rock concert that, throughout its course, goes devastatingly wrong. I was immediately struck by the powerful set designed by Tom Scutt (who also, it should be noted, did a superb job as the show’s hair and costume designer as well). Giant beams jut up from the stage, making subtle crosses, while a huge cross that doubles as a runway is the main focal point of the set. The show opens with the actors carrying and playing instruments of their own, and singing into handheld mics. As an audience member, I was given the sense that the mics act as a visual representation of a character’s voice, and give us insight into their deepest inner thoughts. Having characters such as Jesus, Peter, and Pilate accompanying themselves and others on guitar also leant to the narrative that music represented the words of their souls.
The rock concert feeling of the show guided the audience into truly seeing the ways in which humanity idolizes figures, whether that be Jesus or Pilate, and how overwhelming that can be when we approach these figures as human beings. Aaron LaVigne, as Jesus, showed us the character’s human vulnerability in a raw and open way that was truly touching to experience. We see moments of fear and uncertainty that are important to the role, and we are able to experience his moments of feeling overwhelmed and confused. Also, Jesus Christ that falsetto (I’ll see myself out). LaVigne’s voice is superb, and further lends to him truly being appreciated as a superstar. Opposite Jesus is James Delisco Beeks as Judas, Jesus’ disciple and traitor. Delisco Beeks performs marvelously as Judas, leading the audience through the show as we watch the events unfold through his eyes. Judas is a complex and conflicting role, and his complexity really shines in this production. He is not entirely good, but he is not entirely evil. He is human. In directing the show, Sheader does a marvelous job of showing the physical portrayal of Judas becoming a traitor. I don’t want to give too much away, but the moment that we see Judas become a traitor to Jesus, and thus set off the series of events that lead to Jesus’ death, is particularly striking. Judas’ physical appearance begins to morph more and more into one that resembles, say, Pilate, and it is entrancing to watch. Subtleties seem to be Sheader’s strong points, and my recommendation to audiences is to look at the big picture, not just at what is happening center stage. I found one moment, during “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem”, particularly astounding. While the song occurs largely on the cross/runway onstage, looking up into the beams stage right, we see Judas and, stage left, an actor wearing a mask resembling the face of a marble Roman statue, both staring down at Jesus and the disciples. It was a moment that gave me goosebumps, but that could have so easily been missed. Be on the lookout for many moments like that, as there is always something happening everywhere onstage that moves the story along beautifully.
The entire ensemble is breathtaking, and they all perform stunning choreography by Drew McOnie that is unique and mesmerizing. Standout members of the cast include Jenna Rubaii as Mary, whose gentleness and lovingness provides to Jesus the savior that he so desperately needs. Alvin Crawford as Caiaphas and Tyce Green as Annas are vocally stunning, and have the power to give the audience chills whenever they are onstage. Tommy Sherlock as Pilate is a perfect counter-rockstar to Jesus, and is another great example of the conflicted and complex villain role. Crowd-favorite King Herod, played by Paul Louis Lessard, is only onstage briefly but absolutely commands the scene and is a thrill to watch. The entire production as an ensemble piece is amazing, and all of the actors clearly know how to work and perform together in a beautiful and enticing way. The casting could not have been more perfect, but neither could the technicalities. From McOnie’s remarkable choreography to Lee Curran’s visually entrancing lighting design, all of the technical roles of the show also flow perfectly together. This show is one that you certainly will know how to love, and it is not to be missed.
Jesus Christ Superstar will run from October 17-20 at Popejoy Hall. Visit popejoypresents.com to purchase your tickets.