JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR ignites the Lyric Opera stage in a never-ending burst of electrifying energy. This production is brilliant from start-to-finish, and it beautifully unites Lyric Opera’s commitment to providing first-rate talent and stunning visuals with director Timothy Sheader’s contemporary, invigorating vision. Originally staged at London’s Regents Park Open Air Theatre in 2016, the Lyric’s production is big and bold in every aspect. Set and costume designer Tom Scutt’s rock concert atmosphere design combines a stark, modern look with a backdrop of lush greenery—a nod to the play’s outdoor theater roots.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is exhilarating and pays homage to the piece’s legacy as a concept album created by musical theater legends Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. Though the show, of course, is set in biblical times and though the album debuted in the 1970s, everything about this staging feels immediate. Sheader keenly stages the entire show in concert style and does not superimpose extra narrative onto JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s collection of songs. Instead, Sheader leans into the literally performative aspects of the show. All of the characters perform their solos using handheld mics, which appear in a myriad of inventive ways throughout the production. This concert-style staging, though, does not at all mean that JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR isn’t flashy. True to Lyric Opera style, the show has a host of visual delights, and all the elements fit together beautifully (among other things, each performance uses 90 pounds of gold glitter confetti).
Drew McOnie’s choreography plays a great role in the vivacity of this JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. McOnie relies heavily on hip hop influences to make the dancing contemporary and in line with the production’s overall tone, and the 39 ensemble members deliver the moves perfectly in sync. As to be expected from anything staged by the Lyric, this show is also packed with vocal powerhouses. Each and every ensemble member sings with such immense vocal command. Kudos must especially be given to Candace Edwards, Keirsten Hodgens, and Sandyredd as the Soul Girls, who make the show’s famous title number pack an extra glorious punch. The production’s ensemble is also incredibly and delightfully diverse, yet all the performers truly come together as a cohesive unit.
Of course, the leading players are what truly enable this JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR to sing. Lyric has delivered a total dream of a cast. As the man himself, Heath Saunders delivers nothing short of a forceful, commanding performance. Acting-wise, Saunders finds so much humanity and vulnerability in the role of Jesus. He allows us to see his character’s struggle with real pain and conflict. Though Saunders acting is rooted in a true humanity, his singing is profoundly divine. He has an uncanny level of vocal control and the insanely challenging falsetto notes he must reach seem to float out of him. Saunders’s take on the famous “Gethsemane” is legitimately jaw-dropping, particularly because he also accompanies himself on the guitar during this tour-de-force of a vocal number.
Ryan Shaw’s take on Judas is both unassuming and necessarily emotional. His Judas has a mostly grounded presence for much of the show, and then Shaw bursts onto the stage for his performance of the title song. Without question, Shaw’s take makes “Jesus Christ Superstar” the all-out showstopper it should be. Shaw’s portrayal of Judas all leads up to that moment in which he gives his all and brings down the house. Jo Lampert seems born to play the role of Mary Magdalene. The role vocally fits her like a glove, and her delivery of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” is basically perfection. Lampert knocks it out of the part vocally but also bestows such an immense depth-of-feeling to all of her numbers. These three core performers seal the deal in making this JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR an absolute must-see.
The supporting actors are equally gifted and commanding. Cavin Cornwall has a deliciously deep, resonant singing voice on fine display as Caiaphas. Michael Cunio is delightfully sinister as Pilate. Though he has but one solo number, Shaun Fleming is absurdly outrageous as King Herod, and his vocals are perfectly on point. Mykal Kilgore is excellent as Simon Zealotes. Andrew Mueller is so endearing as Peter; he sings like a dream, and he plays excellently off of Lampert’s Mary.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is a brilliant and invigorating theatrical experience from beginning to end. As a theater lover, it is one my greatest joys to discover productions where all the pieces of the puzzle fit together so precisely—and that’s exactly what happens here. This production wholly earns the superstar status bestowed by its title.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR through May 20 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. Tickets start at $35. Visit JCSuperStar.org.
Photos by Todd Rosenberg