A SINGLE ELECTRIC guitar strums from the onstage orchestra, signaling the start of the overture. The ensemble weaves through the house, giving the audience a rush of biblical proportions. Through composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s timeless rock score, Jesus Christ Superstar shows the struggle and strife Jesus faced in his last days on earth.

When Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice initially presented their idea for Jesus Christ Superstar, they faced rejection by London producers, who considered the idea profane, blasphemous, or simply unmarketable. So, Lloyd Webber and Rice developed their rock opera score and fresh story angle through the alternative medium of a concept album. Fortunately, the music was a hit, selling more than 3 million copies, priming audiences for a stage adaptation, and prompting a Broadway opening within a year of the album’s release.

The North American tour celebrates the 50th anniversary of this original concept album, which dramatizes the final days of Christianity’s central figure, the deterioration of his popular support, and his death. Struggling with double-crossing allies, ignorant political officials, and a world blinded by corruption and greed, Jesus finds himself paying the ultimate price for living his truth.

James Delisco Beeks gives an astounding performance as Judas, the disloyal disciple whose perspective leads the Superstar telling of Jesus’ story. After betraying Jesus’ trust and selling him out to a corrupt official, Caiaphas, Judas commits suicide. The complex layers of Judas’ character, as well as his very high vocal range, would give any ordinary actor serious trouble. Fortunately, Beeks defies expectations and puts his powerful tenor to use in numbers such as “Judas’ Death” and “Superstar.”

Along with Beeks, Aaron LaVigne leads the cast as the ever-famous son of God. LaVigne’s complex and confident portrayal of Jesus inspires the audience to root for the tragic hero. With guitar in hand, he offers angelic renditions of many classic Lloyd Webber hits, including his show-stopping “Gethsemane.” 

Aaron LaVigne, Tommy Sherlock, and the company of the North American tour of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Aaron LaVigne, Tommy Sherlock, and the company of the North American tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Supporting all of Jesus’ endeavors is the dearly devoted Mary Magdalene (played by Jenna Rubaii). Director Timothy Sheader introduces a fresh interpretation to Magdalene’s character by keeping her present in many of the significant disciple numbers. This allows Rubaii to emphasize Mary’s unconditional support to Jesus’ cause. Rubaii’s empathetic portrayal of Magdalene shows that kindness costs nothing, a useful lesson for all.

Another standout supporting performance is given by Paul Louis Lessard as King Herod. Though Herod only appears in one musical number, Lessard makes sure no one will forget his character. Decked in a glittery gold tailcoat (designed by set/costume designer Tom Scutt), Lessard’s bombastically obnoxious performance of “King Herod’s Song” permanently ingrains itself into the audiences’ minds.

Scutt’s scenic design uses symbolism to its highest advantage. Through the repeated imagery of crosses meticulously scattered onstage, the world around Jesus warns him of his future crucifixion. The multitiered, run-down stage adds dimension and blends the actors with the onstage band, emphasizing the inextricable importance of Lloyd Webber’s score to the production. There is a cross-shaped platform in the center (an example of Scutt’s crucifix imagery) and a tree representing the garden of Gethsemane. The lighting, designed by Lee Curran, and the sound, designed by Keith Caggiano and Nick Lidster, add to the production’s concert-like aura. By using effects such as jarringly prominent spotlights and echoey microphones held by onstage actors, these designers leverage the production’s rock music roots and connect with the audience by transporting them to the familiar world of a concert.

Though the plot follows a story familiar to many Christians, the show’s themes are more broadly universal. Jesus Christ Superstar warns the world of what can happen if we lead with ignorance and injustice. The anniversary tour of the iconic rock opera masterfully reflects today through a lens still as relevant as it was 50 years ago.

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