For fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the original double-album of Jesus Christ Superstar — known as "the Brown Album" — composed when he was 23, is a cultural touchstone and an iconic, pioneering example of the rock opera genre. The latest touring production of the musical that came out of the album, celebrating the show's 50th anniversary, is a stripped-down version of the show with the band on stage that is akin to a concert production — though there are modern costumes and a lot of kinetic dancing by the disciples.
The moment in time that produced both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, both of which opened in 1971 in New York, is sort of hard for modern musical theater fans to transport themselves back to. The hippie era was on the wane, guitar rock music had just entered its golden age, and Hair had just reinvented the musical for a new generation four years earlier. And somehow bridging the free love 60s with Christianity and modern music was part of the zeitgeist — at least in America, because as the New York Times recalls this week, the original concept album for Jesus Christ Superstar "fizzled" in England upon its release, but it went gangbusters in the U.S., hitting number one on the Billboard chart in February 1971.
The latest production comes via Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in London, where it was the first West End production to open during the pandemic in 2020. This production, directed with fresh eyes and energy by Regent's Park Artistic Director Timothy Sheader, also played at Lyric Opera in Chicago in 2018.
The extremely talented Aaron LaVigne and James T. Justis take on the roles of Jesus and Judas, respectively — and in some ways, Judas is the central figure in the story, being the narrator of this telling of Jesus's last seven days before his death by crucifixion. (Controversially, Webber and lyricist Tim Rice decided to end their story before the resurrection, because this take ends with Judas's death by suicide.) Justis has a powerful and terrific voice, and he harmonizes well with LaVigne's stratospheric rock-tenor chops.
The followers and disciples of Jesus are an intense bunch in this production, in near constant motion and performing some decidedly cult-like choreography by Drew McOnie. The costumes, by Tom Scutt, have Jesus and the gang all in sneakers and gray knit hoodie ensembles with fashionably baggy pants to match, and along with the dancing it brings an appropriately devotional and fawning aura to the group. These are not just well trained chorus kids going through the motions, these are some madly driven worshipers with a brand new kind of charismatic leader.
As Mary Magdalene, Jenna Rubaii does an excellent job doting on and duetting with LaVigne, and her voice is also great. And Paul Louis Lessard makes an excellent, scene-stealing turn as Herod in one of the final scenes.
The decision to run the show straight through without intermission is a wise one, keeping this production's hard-driving momentum uninterrupted. And Scutt's simple but effective set deserves mention as well — two steel-frame structures, that could either be read as buildings under construction or recently bombed, frame the stage and provide second-story platforms for the band, with a couple of trees in between and a cross-shaped platform lying prone just off of center stage.
How much you enjoy this show will likely hinge on how much you already know or love the music, and/or how much you believe that Jesus's final days are fitting subject matter for musical theater. Personally, I find most rock opera sort of grating, and with the exception of the "hits" from Jesus Christ Superstar, "Superstar" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him," this is a score full of a lot of electric guitar frippery and dirge-y, unpleasant melodies and recitative. But this is a show with plenty of fans who'd strongly disagree with that sentiment, and for them, it should come as a delight and a well-staged celebration of the original concept album — also, a firm step away from the critically panned original Broadway production.
If nothing else, it is a marvel of movement and classic rock, and the performers never let up.
'Jesus Christ Superstar' runs through November 7 at the Golden Gate Theatre. Find tickets here.
Top image: Photo by Matthew Murphy