The 50th Anniversary National Tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is one of the greatest pieces of live theater I’ve ever seen.
It has the potential to join such productions as Sam Mendes’ 1993 staging of “Cabaret” and the 1996 Encores! production of “Chicago” as a definitive revival that reinterprets and forever changes how we view the original musical. Indeed, the only reason you haven’t already heard the buzz about this production is that its current run in Austin, sponsored by Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts (and playing through Oct. 13 at Bass Concert Hall), is the production’s North American debut, following a limited run in 2017 in London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
This rocking, manic, modern take on “Jesus Christ Superstar,” helmed by director Timothy Sheader and choreographer Drew McOnie, reclaims the cynicism, desperate questioning and emotional depth of the original 1970 concept album by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. In this version, rather than a feel-good parable about general Christian good will (as many sanitized, anodyne productions of the show have become), we see an epic rock concert gone wrong that has no clear narrative of good or evil, but rather a probing interrogation of the Passion of Jesus that has equal sympathy and scorn for both Jesus and Judas.
MORE ABOUT 'JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR': An interview with the actor playing Judas
I should note that, as a secular Jew, I have no personal attachment to the source material here, but that’s part of what made it so incredibly thrilling to be drawn into the emotion and intensity of the story (one that was just as affecting to my practicing Christian friend with whom I viewed the show). What Sheader has crafted is a dark, moody, sexy, explosive version of the story of Jesus’ final days that creates an epic mythology while scrupulously refusing to state whether there is actually anything divine about Jesus. As such, Judas — the “villain” of the story — is in many ways treated with more sympathy than Jesus.
Some of this is due to brilliantly subtle costuming choices by designer Tom Scutt, who creates a contrast between a kind of natural, earthy charm in James Delisco Beeks’ lost, questioning Judas and a hipster poseur style for Aaron LaVigne’s soulful-but-sometimes-whiny Jesus. However, as the story inevitably moves closer to Judas’ betrayal of his friend and the brutal violence of Jesus’ whipping and crucifixion — staged with stunning theatricality that is shocking without relying on gore — we find our sympathies in constant flux between the two men, who by the end are equally spiritually lost, caught forever hovering between darkness and light.
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Much of this comes down to the powerful performances from LaVigne and Beeks, as well as Jenna Rubaii as Mary, who completely eschew the potential cheesiness of the score and sing each note with emotional depth and intensity. This production is truly an ensemble piece, though, and that’s where McOnie’s genius choreography comes in, transforming the ensemble from a loving family at Jesus’ feet (who are now hipsters, rather than Rice and Webber’s original hippies), into a scary and dangerous cult hanging on his every tiny word, a clawing mob who want to claim him for their own, and ultimately a truly terrifying mob calling for and carrying out his crucifixion in a frenzied and intense finale.
The keyword to this entire production is “intense,” a sensation that is heightened by Scutt’s operatic scenic design contrasted to the rock concert lighting of Lee Curran. What’s more, the show runs with no intermission, intentionally preventing the loss of momentum that might come were there a break between acts. Without a break in the tension to catch our breaths, by the final few songs we are left in a truly dark place with only a hint of light.
This darkness — and, just as important, that hint of light — is what makes the production such a revelation. Just as in Rice and Webber’s original creation, Sheader and McOnie have crafted a “Jesus Christ Superstar” that speaks to our times, every bit as reverent as it is sacrilegious, asking far more questions than it dares to answer, and reminding us that at its finest live theater has the power to develop a mythology and connectiveness that is spiritual in its own right.