Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The Original Rock God: Lyric's Divine 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is Well-Worthy of Worship -- Chicago Theater / Opera Review

Theater / Opera Review

Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru May 20

Although I'm Jewish, and really actually rather agnostic, I have frequently been enchanted by works reflecting or celebrating other religions.

From the Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular to ornate mosques to Hindu temples to the A Christmas Story musical (and movie) and well beyond, I can appreciate art for art's sake, even if the underlying doctrine or spirituality or references are lost on me.

With Jesus Christ Superstar--the rock opera originally written as a concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in 1970 and first staged the following year--there is much to admire and appreciate in a secular sense.

Particularly when staged as resplendently as currently at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, in a production created by London's Regent's Park Theatre.

As the first full-length Webber/Rice collaboration to be put on stage--though a 20-minute rendition of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat preceded it--it's interesting to consider JCS as the Genesis of their extremely successful oeuvre, both in tandem (Evita) and separately (Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Chess The Lion King, etc.).

Noting that the Jesus Christ Superstar concept album was the top-selling album of 1971, I find fascinating its correlation with the first "rock opera" record, The Who's Tommy--itself about a preternatural, hallowed, followed, revered, scorned and galvanizing individual--and also, how the live show followed in the wake of Hair, typically considered the first rock musical.

One must also consider how shocking--and to many, appalling and heretical--a rock musical about Jesus would have been in 1971, and also see it through a counter-cultural prism that included Cool Hand Luke, M*A*S*H (initially the movie), Slaughter-House Five, All in the Family and other works daring to question authority, the status quo and previously taboo topics.

I also can't help but wonder about direct and indirect impetuses and inspirations for the creators.

Wikipedia notes that lyricist Rice said he took inspiration from the Bob Dylan song "With God on Our Side," but it also seems that one of rock's biggest stars--John Lennon--being excoriated in 1966 for saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, with a portion of the band's "followers" then burning LPs in protest, could also have been something of a thematic touchstone.

And though Andy Warhol seemingly used the word "superstar" previously--its entomology actually dates back far further--Jesus Christ Superstar truly brought the term into the lexicon (from what I can glean).

So while Webber & Rice clearly played up parallels to the iconic rock frontmen of the time--Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Jim Morrison, Robert Plant, etc.--dubbing Jesus a superstar was not only daring, but semantically prescient.

Hence, beyond the acute merits of the musical itself and the splendors of the production at Lyric--and there are plenty of both--I got a great deal out of seeing Jesus Christ Superstar, including a bit of a theology lesson from Paolo, my Catholic friend alongside. (I'd seen the musical previously, and had watched much of the recent live NBC version, but this felt like a fresh exploration.)

But while there was nothing I felt off-putting--and much I found quite valuable--as a Jew watching a
musical about Jesus, even this scintillating rendition revealed the musical's dramaturgical shortcomings.

It isn't hard to see why for Evita--it too initially as a concept album (in 1976) and then a stage musical--Webber and Rice opted to employ a narrator, in the guise of Che Guevara.

Not everyone in the UK, US or elsewhere would've been familiar with Eva Peron, an Argentinean first lady who had died decades earlier.

So--via Che--within the show itself, "Evita," her husband Juan Peron and even more minor characters are well-defined, even though it, like JCS, features almost no spoken dialogue.

While I recognize many people worldwide will be quite familiar--likely since childhood--with Jesus, Judas, Mary, Simon, Peter, various other apostles, Pilate, Caiaphas, King Herod and several other characters pulled from the Gospels, I know almost nothing about any of them.

And even in having listened to cast recordings, watched the NBC version and read the synopsis on Wikipedia, I still found myself rather confused about who was who, what was happening onstage, and why.

Heath Saunders makes a rather modern and hip Jesus Christ, but even his storyline seems to assume people know it already. And Paolo had to clue me in to pretty much everyone else named above.

So taken strictly as theater, which should make itself readily understandable to those watching, Jesus Christ Superstar is not a show clearly sensible to the uninitiated. (In addition to Evita, another biographical show explaining its multiple characters really well is Hamilton.)

And while I'm not suggesting director Timothy Sheader should have used operatic supertitles to identify each character as he/she sang, or emblazoned their names on their clothing, I can't give this production a perfect @@@@@ because it doesn't solve the problem of a sung-through narrative lacking clarity.

But this is an "absolutely phenomenal" rendition of the source material, which musically is quite strong.

On a striking set by Tom Scutt (who also did the costuming), the overture sends chills, and--though I felt he was a bit under-miked--Ryan Shaw as Judas rocks "Heaven on Their Minds."

As a closely-sheared Mary, Jo Lampert's astonishing voice shines on "Everything's Alright" and "I Don't Know How To Love Him," a ballad ranking with Webber's best.

Although I had my troubles knowing all the characters in the present tense, Michael Cunio (Pilate), Michael Kilgore (Simon), Cavin Cornwall (Caiaphas) and local actor Andrew Mueller (Peter) are all demonstrably good.

The costuming of Shaun Fleming's Herod--featuring a 28-foot-long gold cape--is astonishing, and his delivery of "Herod's Song" quite good, though I can't deny a bit more so savoring Alice Cooper's take on NBC.

And while the looks, manner and demeanor of Saunders as Jesus reminded me a good bit of Savion Glover, in his playing an acoustic guitar and delivering a stunning "Gethsamane (I Only Want to Say)," I couldn't help but conjure Chris Cornell, perhaps in waiting for a "Jesus Christ Pose"--a Soundgarden song--to be struck.

But that came later, and I was glad to have Paolo explaining the roles of Herod, Pilate and others leading up to Christ's crucifixion.

With a 6-piece band in something of a girdered loft, backed by an unseen 31 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra--conducted by Tom Deering--the show truly did rock.

Among other things, I came to better appreciate Sir ALW's rock 'n roll pedigree, and the merits of his composing the recent School of Rock musical himself (though that could have rocked a good bit harder). 

With over 80 artists onstage, working around a huge fallen cross, director Sheader, choreographer Drew McOnie and others clearly do a remarkable job with the staging and blocking.

And while I would surmise it's been done before, I was tickled by a near exact re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper painting, which I perceived to be followed by a reference to this iconic photograph.

Almost everything about Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyric is dazzling, and no matter your faith, I strongly recommend it. (BTW, it's sung in a Broadway/rock style, not operatically.)

But, if like me, you didn't grow up on the Gospels, you may find yourself quite confused, for Christ's sake.

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