Reviewed by Katherine Damisch
Between the recent all-black production at the Paramount Theatre and the live NBC extravaganza, the Lyric Opera fights an uphill battle to make their version of Jesus Christ Superstar stand out. The fact that they still managed to beat Lloyd Webber-fatigue and create buzz in the Chicago theatre community amongst all the noise is a testament not only to the talent of the artists involved, but the ways, big and small, that this production differentiated itself from all the rest.
The main difference between this Superstar and your more classic staging is how they leaned into its rock opera and concept album roots. Instead of creating a sense of realism, Director Timothy Sheader peppered the stage with the use of hand and stand microphones. Lighting Designer Lee Curan utilized lighting patters more often seen in a concert setting than in musical theatre, such as lighting a character from behind instead of your typical spotlight from in front or above. Occasionally, characters even brought out guitars, most notably Heath Saunders as Jesus in “Gethsemane”. All of these elements gave the audience a sense of planned performance, instead of trying to transport them to first-century Jerusalem. The take is fresh, unexpected, and a welcome break from tradition.
Sheader clearly directed his performers to break the mold as well. Saunders is not a Jesus with gravitas. He is introverted, soft-spoken, and angsty. His rendition of “Poor Jerusalem” in particular depicts a Jesus preemptively in mourning for himself, his people, and the world. He saves his eye-popping rock screams for key moments, as if to remind you that he indeed has the chops for this role. The main exception to this is his aforementioned “Gethsemane”, which is not to be missed. Ryan Shaw as Judas is relentlessly reliable; his range and technique is so solid that he makes all that high belting sound easy.
However, the real Superstars here are the ensemble members. Their energy and precision, both vocally and physically, are boundless. Instead of depicting disciples that interact with each other, creating alliances and rifts in the ranks, Sheader and Choreographer Drew McOnie create a group that are almost militant in their cohesiveness. Costume Designer Tom Scutt clothed them in sweatshirts, gym shoes, sports bras, and alternative hairstyles, making them homogenous in their uncommonness. They are a powder keg with a short fuse, ready to turn on the powers that be at a moment’s notice.
While Jesus Christ Superstar, at 47 years old, is a time-tested chestnut of theatre, its difficult music and subject matter demand excellence in order to succeed. Luckily for them and for us, The Lyric Opera exceeds expectations in every way. This production is a triumph, whether this is your first brush with Lloyd Webber’s vision of Christ, or your 100th.