Celebrating 50, 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is Muddled Spectacle

by Adam Brinklow

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday October 20, 2021

Aaron Lavigne and the cast of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'
Aaron Lavigne and the cast of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'  

Some people might call it sacrilegiousness to compare the reopening of San Francisco's Golden Gate Theater to a resurrection. But since the show they're kicking off with is "Jesus Christ Superstar," anyone offended by potentially glib handling of religious themes probably has bigger loaves and fishes to fry.

This is the 50th anniversary production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's still-controversial 1970/71 (the album came out before the show premiered) rock opera, which imagines the final days of Jesus of Nazareth's life as a sweaty, high-emotion music festival revel.

After three years on tour as a miracle worker, Jesus (Aaron Lavigne) is the biggest celebrity in all Judea, and when he finally arrives in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, both his supporters and his enemies assume he means to spark a political revolution.

But Jesus' biggest problem is actually that longtime friend and right-hand man Judas (James Justis) has lost faith in him, which, yeah, is probably something to keep an eye on...

True story: As soon as the lights went down on opening night, a gentleman sitting next to us turned and asked someone, "Wait, did Judas die?"

Yes, a 2,000-year-old spoiler alert for those who need it, Judas dies in the end. So does Jesus, in case you hadn't heard. But unlike in the gospel stories, Jesus does not rise from the dead in "Superstar," leaving the nature of his sacrifice ambiguous to the characters who survive and, perhaps, to the audience.

Point being, we can never be sure what kind of assumptions about the material people bring into a show like this. What awaits audiences who are perhaps unfamiliar with the narrative?†

First, Lavigne is surprisingly passive for most of the action; less of a suffering Messiah so much as a shrugging one. The show going on around him is overwhelmingly lustrous, but our titular superstar seems to be on the verge of holy ghosting us much of the time.

Members of the ensemble in 'Jesus Christ Superstar'
Members of the ensemble in 'Jesus Christ Superstar'  

Sometimes he's literally pushed around by the rest of the cast, a visual cue that manifests almost the second he appears onstage and grabs a microphone — only for Judas to immediately snatch it away from him.

It's actually not a bad thing if Jesus himself is one of the least prominent variables in "Superstar," since Judas is the better role anyway. But Justis does not insert himself into the action particularly forcefully, either, and his voice lacked robustness during several key opening night numbers.

That leaves the ensemble to carry much of the show on their own, buoyed by Drew McOnie's cool, somewhat alien choreography, in which the crowds move like flocks of birds or swarms of insects —independently, but also all together.

Director Timothy Sheader and company craft an almost crushing degree of visual spectacle for everyone to work with: Judas is literally saturated with silver, and the mob torments Jesus by hurling handfuls of glitter at him, until he ends up bloody, beaten, and gilded.

The best indicator of the degree of visual irony you're in for is when the lights come up to reveal a set dominated by a gigantic ramp in the shape of a cross — and then your eyes adjust and you realize that nearly the entirety of Tom Scutt's set consists of crosses in some form or other.

This production boasts a lot of wins, like the grooving Pharisees (featuring wild-eyed "American Idol" alum Tyce Green as a kind of ranting jester) and Paul Lessard's prancing, bizarre showstopper turn as King Herod.

We probably also don't need to tell anyone that "Superstar" remains a triumph musically, with an 11-piece orchestra reeling off Webber's score with enough force to rattle the cheap seats, merging acoustic and emotional power into a nearly seamless unit. Few things have remained pretty much exactly as good over the decades as the day they debuted, but this is one of them.

But there is still undeniably a hole in the center of "Superstar" where a more compelling, or even just more conspicuous, presentation of the title role would have pushed the show from merely good to possibly great.

Of course, in this day and age it's quite topical to observe that power, fame, and messianic expectations often fall onto the least likely people — and people who are the least able to execute them effectively.

Nevertheless, you feel a little guilty at the relief that comes when the Romans put Jesus in chains, because now we've reached the point where he's supposed to be passive, and where the sense that the whole show threatens to overwhelm him is finally a plus.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" plays at the Golden Gate Theater at 1 Taylor Street in San Francisco through November 7. For tickets and information, visit BroadwaySF.com or call (888) 746-1799.