Broadway came back with a bang as the 50th anniversary tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar” blessed the stage from Nov. 9-14 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. This spectacular production is a tribute to rock ‘n roll and a testament to the power of live performance.
In “Jesus Christ Superstar,” composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice revive one of the world’s oldest tales by way of rock opera. The musical is an in-depth look at Judas and Jesus within the crucifixion story, exploring the humanity and moral ambiguity of two men who have come to represent the binary of good and evil.
Aaron LaVigne is remarkably human as Jesus Christ. Rather than portraying Jesus as the pinnacle of goodness and mercy, LaVigne is rough around the edges and often feels weary of his duty and conflicted about his sacrifices. The tension between his fear and his desire to do what’s right climbs to a breaking point in “Gethsemane,” as he guides us vocally through Jesus’s final prayer before his arrest. LaVigne powers through the heavy metal ballad with gut-wrenching emotion, eventually soaring into a gritty and piercing falsetto that tapers off into a tortured growl as he resigns himself to his fate.
Judas (James T. Justis) serves as more of a point of view character than Jesus himself, providing an outside perspective on the legendary martyr and offering his own commentary on Jesus’s actions. In “Damned For All Time/Blood Money,” he has an impossible decision to make, and desperately tries to do what he thinks is right while ignoring the temptation of the reward he’d receive for betraying Jesus. Justis fills his voice with raw angst and passion, using the style of rock ‘n roll to portray a man torn to shreds by internal conflict.
The ensemble is vital to this production, they make every scene enthralling with incredible energy and complete commitment to Drew McOnie’s impactful choreography. In “Heaven on Their Minds,” they demonstrate the frenzied, cult-like fascination of Jesus’s followers. In a hip-hop style of movement, the mob executes sharp, precise motions as more and more people join the dance, circling Jesus and growing in energy as the music builds.
The production’s director, Timothy Sheader, accentuates music above all else in this great rock tribute. Not only is every performer a vocal powerhouse — some even playing their own instruments — music is thematically connected to the narrative as well. Musical equipment is quite literally brought into the story; microphones, amplifiers, extension cords and mic stands serve as props throughout the show.
In “Trial by Pilate/39 Lashes,” the ensemble strips equipment from the set as they surround Jesus, using extension cords to restrain him while he’s being whipped. They eventually take apart microphone stands and fasten them into a makeshift cross, to which Jesus is tied and carried off. He’s placed on a mechanical lift, which is shaped like a giant cross and has remained stationary on the stage throughout the show. During “Crucifixion,” Jesus is finally raised higher and higher until he’s positioned almost completely upright, with a spotlight catching his glistening blood and accentuating the bruises on body. The audience tenses and holds their breath in anticipation as the light slowly fades out, leaving him completely backlit, and reducing him to a breathtaking silhouette of one of the world’s most famous symbols.
The lighting design by Lee Curran is an inherent part of the show’s impact and spectacle. In many numbers, it serves as concert lighting, flashing beams of red and white on beat to accentuate the fast, ever-climbing pace and intensity of the music.
But aside from enhancing the extravagant theatratrics, Curran’s design also creates moments of haunting imagery that leave the crowd in awe. In “Judas’s Death,” Judas climbs to the second story of the set and sings his mental torment into a hand-held microphone, dragging a long extension cord behind him. The moment of his suicide is viscerally effective without involving any literal imagery of hanging. On the song’s final beat, Judas resigns himself to death, throwing his mic towards the ground as his spotlight disappears. The stage plunges into darkness, except for one red light fixed on the spot where the mic comes swinging down, hanging limply by its extension cord and eliciting a sea of audible gasps from the audience.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is a masterclass in unbridled passion, visceral imagery and extravagant theatrics. It truly feels like a production performed and designed by people who have waited a year and a half to return to theatre.
Rachel Golkin is an Entertainment Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org