Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Jesus Christ Superstar
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Jesus Christ Superstar's premiere on Broadway. But the score had achieved a fair amount of fame before it ever appeared on a stage, for the first iteration was as a concept album, a two-record set by the then 22-year old Andrew Lloyd Webber and his 26-year old lyricist partner Tim Rice that shot to the top of the charts in 1970. That success led to its first Broadway production the next year.
This 50th anniversary tour attempts to bring the rock opera (no lines are spoken, all are sung) back to its rock and roll roots. (Though, having been a fan of the original two-record set, I did notice several changes in lyrics.) And rock and roll it is, with gigantic arena-level staging, a cast of some two dozen-plus, and a sound system that blasts the score into every corner of the cavernous Golden Gate Theatre.
I last saw Jesus Christ Superstar in an all-female production by Ray of Light that played up the political aspects of the show. In this production, Jesus is less a provocateur/change agent, and more of a rock star dealing with unruly fans and local authorities who want to shutter his show. As Jesus, Aaron LaVigne is appropriately lean and man-bunned, with a screaming tenor befitting an arena rocker. With a guitar slung over his shoulder, he works the mic stand like a pro, as if there were a thousand screaming groupies at his feet, clamoring for more and more.
His counterpart, Judas (James T. Justis), brings a soulful edge to his numbers, with runs that underscore his character's frustration at a situation he feels has gotten way out of hand ("Heaven On Their Minds"). When he finally breaks with Jesus, turning him in to the high priest Caiaphas (an amazingly deep basso Alvin Crawford), Justis' performance of "Damned for All Time" is searing.
Mary Magdalene (Jenna Rubaii), with her more gentle mezzo-soprano, sometimes gets lost among the bigger voices onstage and the hugeness of the set (by Tom Scutt, who also did the hair and costume design), which features a giant cross that looks like it has toppled on to the stage but serves as a runway to lift cast members above the rest of the fray. (It also hosts the best visual gag of the night, when the apostles gather for The Last Supper and assume the poses made famous by da Vinci's iconic painting of the event.)
For Jesus Christ Superstar to really rock, it requires a band up to the task. And from the very first (and famous) guitar lick, music director Shawn Gough's orchestra is fully capable, filling the Golden Gate with a barrage of guitars, bass, percussion and horns.
Equally raucous is the choreography created by Drew McOnie. It's intensely physical, a nonstop barrage of flailing arms, swirling hips, shaking hands, and frantic feet. If that sounds negative, apologies, for I mean it all in the very best of ways, for the moves are so compelling they sometimes pull focus from the rest of action on stage.
If you've seen Jesus Christ Superstar before, this production reveals nothing new about the show. But if you've somehow missed it over the past five decades, this is a great introduction to a terrific rock opera. And if you're a fan who can't get enough, the BroadwaySF offering will give you more than enough.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through November 7, 2021, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56-$256, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting broadwaysf.com. For more information on the tour, visit ustour.jesuschristsuperstar.com.