Credit: Todd Rosenberg

This year, Lyric Opera has broken with its mission of presenting a classic
of American musical theater as a sort of postseason cream puff. But never
mind that: this spring’s British-born offering, Jesus Christ
Superstar
, has more in common with the usual opera repertoire
than most Broadway musicals: it takes on a culturally resonant epic tale,
explores the deepest passions on a grand scale, and is sung straight
through.

Whether it’s a good idea to turn the Lyric Opera House into a rock music
venue is another question. The giant speakers hanging on both sides of the
stage can strike an opera fan as a sacrilege, and the amplification is at
cross-purposes with the auditorium’s exquisite acoustical capabilities.
Still, this production of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim
Rice’s brilliant and originally controversial adaptation of the last days
of Christ has the place rocking.

Jesus Christ Superstar, an early work by the Lloyd
Webber/Rice duo, first appeared in 1970 as a record album; its stage
premiere came a year later, and there have been numerous productions since,
including one last month on NBC TV. Director Timothy Sheader developed this
version, which treats the show primarily as a 1970s concert performance,
for the 2016 season at London’s Regent’s Park Theatre, an open-air venue.
(Yes, it would work at Ravinia or the Pritzker Pavilion.) Lyric has ramped
it up, increasing the size of both orchestra and ensemble. The result is a
crowded stage—the choreography resembles a packed aerobics class—and the
biggest, richest, most full-throated sound the show’s likely ever had.

In a cast that delivers on one number after another, there are two standout
performances: Heath Saunders manages to bring the toughest role in the
show—a weary, mostly passive Jesus—to life, and Jo Lampert is divine as a
steadfast, pure-voiced Mary Magdalene. Ryan Shaw, in the central role of
Judas, comes through on the vocals, though the drama of his conflict is
dialed down—especially in comparison to the NBC version. Shaun Fleming
introduces as few moments of jarring and malicious humor as Herod in golden
drag.

The set consists of a ramp and a pair of two-story, open-box structures,
one of which houses a six-piece rhythm section made up of these great
Chicago musicians: guitarists Steve Roberts and Kraig McCreary, bassist
Chuck Webb, percussionist Bob Rummage, and Jo Ann Daugherty and Peter
Benson on keyboards. There’s a lot of atmospheric smoke and sweeping
spotlights, and 90 pounds of glittering confetti are dumped at every
performance.

So here’s the buzz: it’s super.   v