Jesus wears his hair in a man-bun and Mary Magdalene appears a bit like a millennial caught outside her “safe space”—but there’s still plenty of power and glory on display in the new 50th Anniversary Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. It is now in Baltimore until near Christmas and then promises a full Kennedy Center resurrection around Easter.
What began in 1970 as one of the world’s first double-LP narrative “concept albums” has never looked much like a book show on stage. The characters’ inner lives and the context for their actions are conveyed almost wholly through Tim Rice’s spare lyrical strokes and the churning majesty of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dramatic melodies.
Dubbed a “rock opera” when it opened on Broadway in 1971, the fashions in both musical theater and rock have changed greatly in five decades. Still, Webber’s galloping symphonic charges behind a cavalry of electrically mounted rhythms continue to disarm audiences.
The score is more than enough to keep us invested in the action. For pop lovers in the crowd, the more calming passages of “Gethsemane,” “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” provide sweet relief from Webber’s more overwrought warping and woofing.
This staging was carried over by Director Timothy Sheader from his award-winning 2016 London revival at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. It adopts all the trappings of a glitzy rock show, with bright shafts of light falling on a cross-shaped runway. Microphone stands are turned upside down to become spears and walking sticks. At the climax, handfuls of gold glitter are thrown at Jesus’s body to underscore each flesh-ripping lash of the whip.
All of this extra flash just serves to weaken the story. The singers and dance ensemble are everything one could hope for, but there’s a lessening of impact in the human dynamics. Sheader’s direction proves more effective in the casting and conception than in the execution. All his distractions do is turn Webber and Rice’s “Passion play” into something that comes up a bit short on both counts.
As a resistance leader, Aaron LaVigne’s Jesus does not come off as particularly charismatic, for one thing. His tantrum over the desecration of the temple by moneychangers seems hardly more than a snit or a stunt. It’s hard to believe that his passivity at other times would send tremors of fear and anger through a mid-level manager like Herod (Paul Louis Lessard).
Judas Iscariot, who is also flawlessly sung by James Delisco Beeks, is not directed to appear furious with this Jesus for failing to take on the occupiers of Jerusalem. When he accuses Jesus of wasting his time on followers like Mary Magdalene he refuses to even point a finger at the person he is criticizing. There is no tension established between the two. In fact, the most controversial message for the devout is the moral equivalency it posits between Jesus and Judas at the end. Really? They both deserve our respect?
The most dramatic moments here often come in a solo spot at a mic, as when Pontius Pilate (Tommy Sherlock) performs “Pilate’s Dream” with just his guitar. Jenna Rubaii has a near-perfect voice as Mary Magdalene, but she moves more like a co-ed on spring break than as a sincere convert confronting her deepest moral convictions in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
The singing choruses aren’t required to convey such a strong subtext so they come off quite well overall. Alvin Crawford and Tyce Green are exceptional as the leaders of the priests and Pharisees, Caiaphas and Annas. The so-called Soul Girls are also in good hands with Keirsten Nicole Hodgens, Sandyredd, and Jasmine Schmenk.
Choreographer Drew McOnie brings a classic “modern dance” vibe to much of the movement. It complements the loose, timeless robes of Tom Scutt, who is also credited with the three-tier static set reminiscent of an ancient Mideast villa.
For five decades now young music lovers have been rediscovering the “greatest story ever told” via Webber and Rice’s entertaining creation. For those who know the story and love the music this 50th anniversary revival comes as the perfect reminder of what Christmas is all about. For the newcomer: What could be more worthwhile than attending the ultimate clash between Man’s empires on Earth and the immortal god of Creation?
Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Hippodrome Theatre through December 22. Charge-by-phone at 800-982-ARTS or go online. to https://baltimore.broadway.com/shows/jesus-christ-superstar/. The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center is at 12 N. Eutaw Street, Baltimore.