Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus Christ Superstar is a retelling (with a number of liberties taken) of the last week of Jesus' life. The story is told equally from the perspectives of Jesus and Judas, starting just before their entrance into Jerusalem until Jesus' crucifixion. This version of the New Testament text attempts neither to confirm nor deny the divinity of Christ. Rather, it focuses on the humanity of Jesus. The character of Judas is written to personify the confusion, doubts and fears of all of Jesus' followers. To the musical's detriment, the presentation of the story assumes that the audience members know the tale, as few characters are sufficiently introduced. However, a high level of dramatic tension exists throughout to sustain sufficient interest in the piece, and the presentation is likely to be thought provoking and emotionally stirring for those already who already know the story.
Jesus Christ Superstar was one of the first sung-through, fully conceived book musicals using rock music. The score was written by two relative unknowns (at the time), Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics). The music contains an effective mix of hard-driving rock rifts, wonderfully soulful ballads, and unique theatrical numbers. Rice's lyrics are extremely efficient, conveying the story along with the political and historical background of the time, all while achieving the high standards of musical theater songwriting. "Heaven on Their Minds", "Everything's Alright", "I Don't Know How To Love Him", "Gethsemane", and the title number have become Broadway classics.
Director Timothy Sheader brings a bold vision to this mounting. There are a number of unique and daring ideas put on the stage, many of which add variety and interesting context or imagery. Not all of the ideas work–there are several that distract (one solo dancer used throughout obviously represents something, but it's unclear exactly what). Others lack clarity in storytelling, as with the scene at the Temple. However, the choices that do work are quite thought provoking, such as the use of crosses to represent various props–adding to the foreboding tone of the piece–and the repeated use of microphones, mic cords, and mic stands as both a nod to the early concert versions and as stand-ins for other elements. Sheader also provides several intriguing stage tableaus and uses many innovative theatrical devices during the 90-minute intermissonless staging. The very active choreography by Drew McOnie uses a lot of arm movement and dances with an organic feel to them. Mark Binns leads a great-sounding five-piece onstage band that is augmented by additional instruments played by cast members. I personally wish there were a few more pieces in the band instead of having to rely on synthesized sounds for all of the horns and strings.
Jesus Christ Superstar requires two lead performers with strong singing chops, and this touring cast certainly has that. The role of Jesus provides many opportunities for vocal gymnastics by taking many lines up an octave or other variations from the primary melody. I own more than twenty different cast recordings of this score, and most of the performers who play Jesus do some of these. Jack Hopewell tackles them all, showing off a superb vocal talent that is a delight to hear. While I wish he showed a bit more depth in his acting during the first part of the show, his singing and commitment to the crucifixion scene are commendable. As Judas, Elvie Ellis supplies top-notch vocals as well, and clearly conveys the torment and inner conflict of the character. Faith Jones could provide a few more layers acting-wise to Mary Magdalene, but brings warm, soulful singing to her numbers.
As Pontius Pilate, Nicholas Hambruch is especially impressive in his material after Jesus' arrest, and Erich W. Schleck displays great versatility and stage presence as King Herod. Isaac Ryckeghem possesses a beautifully rich bass voice which he puts to great use as Caiaphas, and Kodiak Thompson gives Annas some playful sass (and hits lots of chilling high notes as well). Colin Roberson does well as Peter, and provides acoustic guitar accompaniment at times. The entire hardworking ensemble deserves kudos for their dancing and vocal support throughout.
The costumes and scenic design are provided by Tom Scutt. The multi-tiered set features many crosses, again pointing to the eventual death (and for Christian believers–the resurrection) of Jesus. The costumes for Jesus and the disciples are sweat pants and hoodies in muted colors, with more evocative outfits for the high priests, Herod, and Pilate. The lighting by Lee Curran has the stage washed mostly in white, with many rock concert effects added during suitable moments.
The stop in Cincinnati is part of an extended 50th Anniversary tour, and the music and story hold up very well. This tour is blessed with excellent singers, effective dances and designs, and risk-taking direction that make it a unique experience, even for those of us who have seen our share of productions of the rock musical.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through December 18, 2022, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-621-2787 or visit cincinnati.broadway.com. For more information on the tour, visit ustour.jesuschristsuperstar.com.