Hallelujah! Jesus has returned… to Cleveland in Jesus Christ Superstar. About two years ago, Cleveland theatre audiences who were to attend night #3 of the updated national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar were told that Playhouse Square would be shutting down due to COVID-19 and that all performances were suspended. Today this 50th Anniversary tour is open and finally running in the Connor Palace – can we get an AMEN?
The Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock opera was first released as a rock album, which lead to the stage production in 1971, and then a musical drama film in 1973. Told from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, the plot loosely follows the gospel story of Jesus of Nazareth’s passion and death, and is accompanied by electric guitars and a large cast of young vibrant performers.
Set in a static environment of steel beams and stark rock ‘n’ roll lighting, the production features a string section placed in the upper audience boxes on either side of the stage, with the rest of the musicians on an upper level on the main stage. This experience alone makes the show a unique sound and visual experience. Note that the strings are all local musicians who work very well with the touring orchestra. Bravo!
The show starts off with a low rumbling before blasting into the familiar opening notes. And from there it takes off into a wave of sound.
There are many standout vocal moments in this 90-minute show. First, let’s acknowledge that Tommy Sherlock sings his face off (in a good way) as Pilate. Alvin Crawford’s bellowing bass vocals as Caiaphas are ridiculously striking (his low notes are on another level of being). And if that doesn’t induce excitement, Eric A. Lewis’ rendition of “Simon Zealotes” definitely will.
Jenna Rubaii has strong vocals as Mary – it’s a refreshing change of pace to hear a female performer sing in powerful, strong tones (rather than the breathy, nasal timbre of some contemporary performers). Her delivery of “Everything’s Alright,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and “Could We Start Again, Please” are solid.
Omar Lopez-Cepero wins every time he opens his mouth to sing the part of Judas. His range is amazing, and his vocal strength mixed with his ability to wail make each moment memorable. His final song “Superstar” is particularly goosebump-worthy. Acting-wise his focused smolder lets his character rise above some of the visual sameness that mutes other performers.
Speaking of muted performances, Aaron LaVigne’s performance as Jesus at times does get hazed into the rest of the chorus, as his acting and vocal deliveries are very unassuming, and his costume doesn’t call attention to his character. He seems like just another dude hanging out with the chorus sometimes. Luckily he also delivers one of the most poignant moments in the musical, which makes up for the general blending in. His rendition of “Gethsemane” is the single most stirring song of the show, with LaVigne beginning lit in a solo spot and playing the guitar. As the tune builds, his emotion gets rawer, and by the end (when he’s flung that guitar back over his shoulder) the song becomes nothing short of breath-taking.
Moving on – the chorus and the frenetic choreography are huge aspects of the show, with masses of people always moving in and out of the action. They are interesting, entertaining, and they move like a constant, well-oiled dancing machine.
Other things to look out for include a bad-ass saxophone solo in “Dammed for All Time / Blood Money,” an interesting use of silver on Judas’ hands for the betrayal, Herrod in glitter boots, the final on-stage cross transformation, and a gorgeous silhouette ending.
Now back to the choice of neutral-colored athleisure costumes – it feels like the design prevents lead performers from standing out as specific characters within the “Jesus” cohort. Although this may be good for a touring company that could face company swap-outs due to COVID-19, it is a little confusing when figuring out who’s who on the stage. Jesus, Judas, Mary, and the chorus members are all dressed so everyone is like everyone else. As an example: when looking at the group, Jesus is noticeable only by his height and his man-bun. The Jesus group looks like a bunch of sporty college kids, not a mass of believers from a couple thousand years ago.
The same costume look does not apply to Caiaphas, Pilate, Annas, and the “government” bunch, who are a bit more draped and regal… And Herrod is just a whole other look altogether (gold sparkles!)
Outside of the bland costume design for Jesus and His followers, another issue with this tour is the use of gold glitter during the flogging of Jesus. Coming through a fast-paced and emotional story, the director has chosen to have a mob of characters “lash” Jesus with handfuls of glitter, which takes the whole thing out of the moment and even trivializes what’s really happening. Luckily this scene passes quickly and gets back on track without issue.
Despite this last criticism, the production overall is absolutely worth seeing. The music is electric, the choreography is exciting, and the voices are a treat. Whether Christian or not, audiences will appreciate a timeless story with compelling songs and impressive moments. A dark and gritty version, the 50th Anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar will have you believing in the power and resilience of theater.
Jesus Christ Superstar is playing at the Connor Palace at Playhouse Square through February 20, 2022. Tickets are $59.00-$159.00 and can be purchased at https://www.playhousesquare.org.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Playhouse Square has a masking and vaccination policy in place for all patrons, staff, performers, crew, and volunteers. Please review their Health and Safety Policy before attending your performance – https://www.playhousesquare.org/plan-your-visit-main/health-safety