Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule


Heath Saunders and Cast
Photo by Todd Rosenberg
There are moments in our lives when we can't deny the passage of time. Seeing children we've known since childhood get married, watching our friends get grey, for example. Now we can add to this list the act of seeing the rock album we bought in 1970 and played over and over become recognized as a classic and being produced by one of the world's leading opera companies and performed in its home, the magnificent 3563-seat Civic Opera House. Those who might find it anomalous to find a rock opera performed with amplification in this august venue might be well reminded that Puccini's La Bohème was just 56 years old and his Tosca just 54 years old when they were first performed by Lyric Opera on 1954.

At age 47—Superstar was released as a two-disc vinyl recording in September 1970—is a bona fide classic. It has never gone away—and with the rave reviews and an audience of nearly 10 million for the recent NBC live telecast, it's a classic that's especially hot again. It's surely an opera—a dramatic story told entirely through music, lyrics and dance—and deserves a place in this cathedral of opera.

This production didn't start in an opera house, but in an open-air venue of London's Regent's Park. Director Timothy Sheader and his creative team, which includes choreographer Drew McOnie, set and costume designer Tom Scutt, and lighting designer Lee Curran, have made it a full-scale operatic production that takes full advantage of their mammoth Chicago venue. As Andrew Lloyd Webber originally orchestrated the concept album, this production uses a 30-piece symphony orchestra (partially visible upstage and above the stage and a six-piece rock band. The 39-member ensemble includes 13 from the Lyric Opera Chorus and many performers from Chicago's non-Equity musical theater community.

The scale of the production brings something new and special versus other productions to the storytelling. With that 39-member ensemble, we're given a sense of Christ having developed a mass following of fans that the show's title implies—and then, days later, the mob mentality that called for his crucifixion. The ensemble/mob is made to appear even larger in the way it's dimly lit by designer Lee Curran—we're never quite sure where the mob ends. Though the dim lighting is frustrating at other moments, when we might like a better look at the principals, for example, it provides an awesome spectacle when the full company is on display.

This is a full, live realization of Lloyd Webber's original vision for the 1970 concept album that preceded the 1971 world premiere Broadway staging, in its employment of a symphony orchestra as well as a rock band. While the amplification of instrumental and vocal performances is a bit much for the Civic Opera House, where such electronic assistance is not normally needed or used, the production has the scale of classical opera in its use of so many musicians. Also in the spirit of the opera world, there is a major element of dance in the production. Though the program doesn't specify a dance corps, as we might see in a classical opera production, the veteran musical theater performers charged with the dancing execute McOnie's moves like a great corps de ballet.

The American performers brought in to this British-born production are up to the task of leading such a monumental effort. Jesus Christ is played by Heath Saunders, a musical theater performer who appeared in the NBC live telecast of the musical as well as in Broadway's Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. His Jesus is initially shown to be an exceedingly chill figure, but as his last week goes on, builds to a gut-wrenching resolution in the second act, with his soliloquy of "Gethsemane" and his subsequent humiliation, torture and crucifixion. Director Sheader is not shy about portraying it as just that brutal, and seems to have been inspired by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in its graphic nature.

Playing Judas, Ryan Shaw is a performer with both rock and musical theater credentials that are evident in his soulful rock wailings of this role. Jo Lampert is a stunning Mary Magdalene, reminiscent of a Sinead O'Connor not only for her shaved head but for her supple yet strong vocals. Her haircut also gives an exoticism or "otherness" to the character that appropriately reinforces Magdalene's outcast status. Michael Cunio, whose credits include Hairspray on Broadway as well as Jersey Boys in Chicago's sit-down company, is an intense Pontius Pilate. Shaun Fleming entertains well enough as King Herod, though after my nearly 50 years of listening to this score, I don't find his number all that funny anymore, and I could easily have passed on Sheader's idea to have Herod strip down to a diaper. After NBC's casting of Alice Cooper as the Judean King, is there really any opportunity or need to make this character any more outrageous?

Jesus Christ Superstar, through May 20, 2018, at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago IL. For further information and ticketing, visit www.lyricopera.org/ or call 312-827-5600.


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