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Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the rare pieces of media that can perform the miracle of captivating an audience that’s fully aware of how it ends, a distinction it shares with Titanic, Hadestown, and few others. These examples all lampshade their tragic endings by giving their audiences an unexpectedly fun experience before things inevitably go wrong. Superstar has thrived for over 50 years by leaning into its flashy, energetic rock-infused numbers penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice.
The revival, currently touring at the Kennedy Center by way of London, doubles down on the musical’s energy, turning everything up to 11—with larger than life costumes, choreography, and music that rumbles in your chest. A few clever twists made while updating the production for modern sensibilities causes some stumbles along the way, but overall it fascinates and entertains in ways that should not be missed.
In the course of modernizing the 1971 musical for this 50th anniversary touring production, director Timothy Sheader has trimmed the production to a quick 90 minutes with no intermission by cutting some of the hokey, hippy-infused songs and sensibilities. Meanwhile, scenic, hair, and costume designer Tom Scutt has infused the already-anachronistic production with a more modern feel—including an acoustic guitar-toting, topknot Jesus (Aaron LaVigne). Amid these concessions to modern attention spans, Sheader is doing something much more sneaky with his exuberant take on Superstar: He makes the audience uncomfortably complicit in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.
“Superstar,” the triumphant show-stopper that all the other songs build up to, comes in the final few minutes of the show, which—2,000-year-old spoiler alert—ends with Jesus’ death at the behest of a cheering mob. More timid productions, such as the 1973 movie, might use this last bouncy number as an opportunity to give the audience a breather—one more upbeat, triumphant song to enjoy before bringing the mood down again with the crucifixion. But Sheader has staged the thunderous song to play as Jesus is nailed to his mic-stand cross, forcing the audience’s loudest and longest applause break to overlap uncomfortably with the spotlit image of an agonized, dying Christ.
This meshes well with Sheader’s constant juxtaposition of glitz and glam with pain and evil. While Scutt has clothed most of the cast in simple beige outfits (reserving muted touches of color to help important followers like Jenna Rubaii’s sweet and gentle Mary Magdalene), he drapes the evil and campy Herod (Paul Louis Lessard) in opulent layers of glimmering gold.
Gold glitter rains down from the heavens as Jesus casts the golden clad money changers out of the temple, and, in an excruciating final twist, Jesus’ scourging is staged while he is pelted with handfuls of glitter. Thus he resembles a hippie commune leader at the start of the musical, but only embodies the glam ‘70s “superstar” as he hangs in agony from the cross and as the audience goes wild. Silver is used to a similar effect throughout the play. Judas (Omar Lopez-Cepero) plunges his hands into a box to receive his reward for betraying Jesus and pulls out 30 silver pieces. But his hands also drip with liquid silver that spreads to everything he touches, marking his crime that he unsuccessfully tries to wipe away. Through several costume changes, the silver continues to eat away at him, slowly snaking up his arms as if an infection were spreading through his veins and, ultimately, forming a silver ring around his neck after he hangs himself from guilt.
For a show that has often courted controversy from religious groups—primarily for its apparent sympathy for Judas—the way that these particular tricks with gold and silver speak to Jesus’ own staunch teachings of the corrupting influence of money adds surprising depth to this production. Not every dramatic choice works perfectly. The brash sound mixing often seems to have the orchestra competing with vocalists, and some lyrics are rendered unintelligible, which is a shame. The performers all have truly striking singing voices that should not be washed out. What’s worse, the story is told entirely through song, so much of the plot gets drowned out by impressive but deafening instruments. Still, Sheader ultimately pulls off a truly surprising rendition—one of the rare shows that is both rollicking and thought provoking.
Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Timothy Sheader with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, plays at the Kennedy Center through March 13. kennedy-center.org. $45–$185.