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THEATER REVIEW Jesus Christ Superstar
by Kerry Reid
2018-05-02

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Playwright: Andrew Lloyd Webber ( music ); Tim Rice ( lyrics )

At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: 312-827-5600; LyricOpera.org; $49-$219. Runs through: May 20

Lyric Opera closes its season with the North American premiere of Timothy Sheader's celebrated 2016 London revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, which is slated for a U.S. tour in 2019. It's big, bombastic, glittery, sweaty—but also a little empty at the center.

Sheader's production doesn't inject obvious parallels to our own celebrity-driven political culture—possibly because the United Kingdom hasn't yet elected a reality-TV star as prime minister. It works best when it's operating at opposite poles. In the large ensemble scenes, as in the exhilarating opening, the sheer mass excitement of the crowd shows us how easy it is to get caught up in the beat of new sounds—or new ideas. Drew McOnie's choreography turns the chorus into a pulsating organism that seems on the verge of exploding.

And in the rare quiet reflective moments—particularly in Jo Lampert's simply stunning take as Mary Magdalene with "I Don't Know How to Love Him"—the tension at being caught in the space between a man and his movement snaps into poignant focus.

But it's in the confrontational numbers—and boy, does this show love those—that the tension dissipates, even as the volume increases. Heath Saunders' Jesus and Ryan Shaw's Judas blow the roof off their songs, but the essential conflict between them, which is the emotional and dramatic fulcrum of the story, gets lost in the rafters ( as do some lyrics in the ensemble numbers ).

Yet if it's spectacle you crave, ask and ye shall receive it here. The modernist minimalism suggested by the girdered multi-level boxes of Tom Scutt's set serves as counterpoint to Lee Curran's flashing lights and the showers of glitter. When Shaw's Judas takes those 30 pieces of silver, they're represented by silver glitter coating his hands. During the sadistic flagellation scene of Trial by Pilate/39 Lashes, Saunders' bloodied torso gets covered in gold glitter, tossed by those who formerly worshipped him as if they're dousing his wounds in salt.

In fairness, there's a lot about this musical that has always struck me as more about posture than provocation. Judas' line "You'd have managed better if you'd had it planned" can be taken two ways. Should Jesus have done a better job preparing his followers for just how hard real change is? Or is that asking him to substitute pragmatism where idealism should be? I don't think Sheader has a point of view on that, and it would be more interesting if we saw him tilt the scales a bit in one direction or another.

One thing's for sure: It's not boring. Like the title character, this Jesus Christ Superstar serves a generous visual feast for its followers, er, audience. And it's worth remembering that the musical started life as a concept album—a prog-rock opera, if you will. On its own terms, it succeeds brilliantly.


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