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Updated ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ keeps the rock in rock opera

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 21, 2019

Who would have thought that the trial of Jesus before the Roman judge Pontius Pilate would have involved so much glitter? The 39 glitter bombs unleashed on a wounded and prone Christ (Aaron LaVigne) shortly before his crucifixion are not the most unexpected part of the 50th anniversary tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” running through the weekend at the First Interstate Center for the Arts.

We’re reminded from the opening – with a solo guitarist in a single spotlight playing the chorus of the show’s iconic title track – that “Jesus Christ Superstar” is first and foremost a rock opera. Jesus and his followers are dressed more like a punk band than characters from a sword-and-sandals epic. The set is not dotted with wood and clay huts but two towering buildings of steel girders, which when lit reveal an abundance of crosses.

Characters grab the mic stand or sing into a handheld wireless microphone, adding to the show’s concert-like vibe. As King Herod, Paul Louis Lessard appears to have raided Elton John’s closet for a most fabulous outfit. Pilate is tattooed, Jesus’ head is mostly shaved, save for a long blond strip along the top he wears in a bun, and Mary Magdalene bares her midriff.

This latest production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1971 rock musical, based on the Olivier Award-winning revival staged in London in 2016, brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” into the 21st century. And, for the most part, it works. The music still rocks, the dance numbers are athletic and impressive, and the talented cast brings passion to Rice’s lyrics.

The lead trio of Jesus (LaVigne), Judas (James Delisco Beeks) and Mary (Jenna Rubaii) all possess powerful voices. Beeks especially excels at revealing Judas’ anguish as he contemplates betraying his friend (and eventually does). His death scene is effective and affecting. And was he up to the show’s iconic track, “Superstar?” Easily.

Rubaii nails Mary Magdalene’s solo, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the torch ballad that Helen Reddy and Yvonne Elliman rode to the Top 40 in 1971, and shares a nice duet with Peter (Tommy McDowell) in “Could We Start Again, Please?” LaVigne displays lovely range. From the rocking “The Temple” and “What’s the Buzz” to the aching solo “Gethsemane,” LaVigne brings a clear passion and nice voice to the role.

There are a few standouts in the supporting cast. “American Idol” veteran Tyce Green brings David Bowie-esque vocals to the role of Annas, one of the priests who sees Jesus as a threat. As the other priest, Caiaphas, Alvin Crawford brings a big, booming and deep voice to play. Tommy Sherlock plays Pilate with rock star energy and in “Pilate’s Dream” seems to be channeling Axl Rose. Of course, as Herod, Lessard nearly runs away with the whole thing with one outlandish performance of “Herod’s Song.”

The band, perched on the second story of the elaborate stage set, keeps the show moving with tight rhythms and rocking melodies. Bottom line, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is entertaining. The big production numbers, “What’s the Buzz,” “Hosanna” and “The Temple” especially, feature terrific choreography well performed. “The Last Supper” elicited laughs on Wednesday as the apostles assumed the positions immortalized by Leonardo da Vinci.

The show also runs at a pretty good clip, clocking in at 90 minutes with no intermission (so plan accordingly). The pace keeps things feeling propulsive and helps fuel the rock concert feeling director Timothy Sheader wants. The downside is a loss of story development.

As we move from one scene to the next, there’s little chance to breathe, and if you aren’t well-versed in the story, it can be easy to get confused about what’s happening onstage. And, frankly, using glitter to reflect the 39 lashes imposed on Jesus by Pilate was a bit of a stretch.

It was a bit of fun in a moment that really is not fun at all and feels a bit off-key. That said, I enjoyed “Jesus Christ Superstar” more than I thought I would. Lloyd Webber and Rice’s music still has the power to engage and entertain, and this intriguing production does a good job of continuing the show’s legacy.

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