Jesus Christ Superstar: The classic musical takes a gritty turn

When Andrew Lloyd Webber debuted Jesus Christ Superstar over 50 years ago, the theater world both marveled and questioned the concept. Although the bible story is known the world over, setting the tale to a raucous beat was not the making of an Easter service. In the 50th Anniversary Tour production of Jesus Christ Superstar, audiences see the juxtaposition of the story they know with jarring visuals, which leaves a lasting impression after the final note fades.

To say that Andrew Lloyd Webber has impacted musical theater is a tremendous understatement. Long before audiences were enthralled with stories of the founding fathers, adolescent struggles, or even rites of passage, Webber added melodic notes to familiar stories. From the synthesized notes that made the Cats felines purr to the rousing crescendo as the chandelier crashed in Phantom, those theatrical moments still have audiences memorized.

With the 50th Anniversary Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, the 70s vibe is stripped away for a darker, almost industrial take on the classic bible story. As the musicians sit perched in iron scaffolding, the audience wonders if the dismal setting denotes that sense of foreboding. Even if there is to be redemption in the end, is the journey one that is hard to travel.

In some ways, that grittiness of this portrayal seems even more timely. As the world hears more negative news on a daily basis, the glimmer of hope is almost as fleeting as the pieces of glitter that float in the air after Jesus is pelleted with it on stage. Almost within reach, yet not quite able to grasp it.

Still, audiences cannot look away from those scenes. As the iconoclastic imagery seems to be everywhere, there is a moment where questioning belief meets complete acceptance. One minute the crosses offer that redemption only to be turned upside down like the central cross on stage. That ever-changing world and its beliefs are both clear and muddled at the same time.

With this National Broadway Tour, it is the performances that add to the power of the story. Aaron LaVigne, as Jesus, shows his range from a steadfast leader with the charisma to charm to vulnerable in times of doubt. Just like the disciples who connect with him, the audience also does. Although there is somewhat of a rockstar vibe to this production, there is a longing to be in his presence.

Jesus Christ Superstar National tour

Omar Lopez Cepero and the company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman

As the betraying Judas, Omar Lopez-Cepero balances that desire to be enveloped by Jesus’ shadow yet hoping to have that own moment in the sun. When he thrusts his hands into the silver, leaving him stained for the rest of the performance, everyone understands that some decisions cannot be undone. Doubt might be fleeting, but action is permanent.

While Jenna Rubah’s Mary might hold the heart of the performance and Pilate might play the villain, it is Paul Louis Lessard, as Herod, who makes the biggest impression of the night. Although theater nerds might see a reference to another questionable royal character who seeks revenge on loyal subjects, the grandiose moment has everyone wanting more.

Jesus Christ Superstar 50th anniversary tour

Paul Louis Lessard in the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman – MurphyMade

In some ways, the reimagining of this moment proves the longevity of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Even though the 70s production was not as visually complex, those moments where everyone stops are vital to musical theater. It makes everyone appreciate the wonder, emotion, and connection that a live theater experience offers. No matter the reaction, it elicits a response.

This production of Jesus Christ Superstar should not be missed from the theater obsessed to the casual attendee. While the songs are familiar, the 90-minute production will linger in the mind far longer than the time spent in the seat. And, it just might make you want to revisit some favorite older musicals once again.

Jesus Christ Superstar, the 50th-anniversary tour is now playing Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando. Additional dates through the end of the summer can be found on the tour’s website.