By Barry Reszel
My friend Kevin Murphy, a former Catholic seminarian who has worked for the Church pretty much all his adult life has a favorite bumper sticker: “Lord Jesus, Protect Me From Your Followers.”
Amen to that.
If the stunning, new Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s Jesus Christ Superstar came with a subtitle or tagline, it would mirror the words on that sticker. Because only a production the size and scope (and budget) of Lyric’s is able to purposefully pull focus from the show’s leads and provide new insight into the entranced nature of Jesus’ whole, massive cult—not just 12 dudes and a Mary Magdalene as oft times depicted.
Shown first as frenized idealists feelin’ the Bern of their time and then as ruthless, treasonous accomplices to their messiah’s murder, the cadre of Jesus’ followers, as a unit, becomes a signature of this production. One almost expects a chorus of “Aquarius” thrown in for good measure, because this merry band that turns zombie-like when out for blood is a testament to the faithful’s timeless claim of The Bible. With rumors of a tour beyond its Chicago run, this reviewer begs producers to retain their large-sized cast, because in this case at least, size matters…a lot.
What else matters is the stunning set design of Tom Scutt, with an omnipresent reminder of the Garden of Gethsemane along with the tool of crucifixion set as a multi-leveled walkway indicating the ultimate destination for every step taken. Combined with his own subdued earth-tone costuming consistently elegantly lit by Lee Curran, the visual effects are properly and unforgettably spiritually haunting.
This 1970 rock opera following Jesus’ last weeks leading to his crucifixion has gained publicity anew, courtesy of this Easter’s live production on NBC starring John Legend, Brandon Victor Dixon and Sara Bareilles. Sold with star power (Alice Cooper played King Herod), the reviews rightly called it stirring musical theatre for viewers of any or no faith.
Lyric’s version is so much better.
While a detailed plot summary and full production history may be read here, it’s important to know Webber’s passion story (lyrics by Tim Rice) is conveyed primarily through the eyes of Judas Iscariot. Broadway veteran and Grammy nominee Ryan Shaw first depicts Judas as the narrating voice of intelligence drowning in a sea of lemmings. And so when this radical community organizer and enthusiast becomes the ultimate betrayer and, finally, anguished suicide victim, there’s a sympathy for the role Judas accepted. That goes alongside patrons’ deep admiration for Shaw’s impeccable vocals.
Also standing out from the perfectly harmonizing masses is Jo Lampert as Mary Magdalene. Acting as the leader of Jesus’ fawning harem in Director Timothy Schreader‘s brilliant staging, Lampert gorgeously sings arguably the best two songs in the Webber/Rice songbook, “I Don’t Know How to Love him” and “Everything’s Alright.” Cavin Cornwall‘s Caiaphis, Shaun Fleming‘s stupendously costumed Herod (“Prove to me that your no fool…walk across my swimming pool…”) and Andrew Mueller‘s Peter are also particularly noteworthy.
And to be sure, Broadway star Heath Saunders, who appeared in the the ensemble of NBC’s JCS live version and stars here as Jesus, can match TV-Jesus Legend note for note. In particular, Saunders’ rendition of “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” is everything it must be, and more.
All of this talent and then some (the cast numbers more than 50) is brilliantly supported by a near 40-piece orchestra, conducted by Tom Deering and presented in Chicago’s most elegant space.
It would take multiple viewings and deep contemplation to unwrap the symbolism offered by every surprise Sheader and Lyric (hand-held mics and more) put into this truly magnificent production of the greatest story ever sung. All Chicagoland patrons should do themselves a favor and see it at least once.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Jesus Christ Superstar” through May 20 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Todd Rosenberg.