You want irony? How’s this—the actor originally cast as Judas in the 50th-anniversary touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar, James Beeks, was dismissed from the tour after being arrested for his participation in the January 6 insurrection. In his pretrial motion, Beeks claimed that he didn’t recognize the authority of the government and that he was there by “special divine appearance.”
Timothy Sheader’s staging, which began life in 2016 as an open-air production at London’s Regent’s Park, isn’t new to Chicago: the Lyric presented it in 2018. I saw that outing, and though I appreciated the over-the-top arena-rock touches (90 pounds of glittering confetti! A giant cross platform center stage!), I felt the central conflict between Judas and Jesus got a little lost in the proceedings.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Through 7/31: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 7/24, 7:30 PM; Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, 800-775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com, $27-$98
That problem isn’t totally resolved in this latest touring incarnation; the sound mix itself felt a little muddy at Wednesday’s opening at Cadillac Palace. But overall, it feels like the show leans a bit more into teasing out the tensions between the big bombastic touches and the central paradox posed by creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice: How do you remain a leader of the ordinary people when they want to see a god?
Or, as Reader staff writer Katie Prout (my plus-one on Wednesday) put it in her essay on the film version of JCS: “Judas wants his people free, here on earth and still alive. He worries that Christ, with his growing power and visibility, is endangering them all, but he’s also growing disillusioned with his friend for not being revolutionary enough. Christ, in Judas’s eyes, has settled on his savior-martyr role. Judas doesn’t want to die for a cause; he wants to lie low and keep working to redistribute the wealth.”
Silver and gold is everywhere in this production. The infamous 30 pieces of silver Omar Lopez-Cepero’s Judas accepts for betraying his friend here is represented by silver glitter coating his hands—as inescapable a reminder of his guilt as the imaginary blood tormenting Lady Macbeth. Mary Magdalene (Jenna Rubaii) offers ointment to ease the brooding sorrows of Aaron LaVigne’s emo Jesus in the form of gold glitter. That substance later reappears as the taunting crowd covers LaVigne’s bloodied torso with it in the moments before the crucifixion. Herod (Paul Louis Lessard) enters draped in a gold lamé robe that looks like it came straight from Liberace’s closet. (Tom Scutt does admirable triple duty in this production as scenic, hair, and costume designer; the rave-worthy lighting design is by Lee Curran.)
My sisters played the original cast recordings of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell back-to-back so much one summer that it took me a long time to remember which song was from which show. But in truth, they’re very different beasts. The latter (by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak) is about absorbing Christ’s teachings through relatable parables; the former is about how those teachings can be twisted or perverted through envy, impatience, or a stubborn fealty to the status quo. Perhaps it’s not surprising that both shows emerged at the dawn of the 1970s, when the promise of the 60s was slipping away to Nixonland. (JCS was a 1970 concept album and then hit the stage in 1971, the same year as Godspell and Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, which also meditates on the tensions between the promises of faith and the crises of the real world.)
In this Broadway in Chicago production, Lopez-Cepero’s glowering Judas is all raw intensity, a man who’s made his stand as an outsider, and who finds that the relief offered by Jesus’s vision of love is fleeting and insubstantial in the face of authoritarian power.
That power finds several cunning visual cues in addition to Herod’s glam-rock posturing. The centurions here wear white masks, like Roman versions of Michael Myers from Halloween, while Alvin Crawford’s Caiaphas and Tyce Green’s Annas appear with their posse wielding staffs that invert into microphones. High priests, rock stars—what’s the difference?
Rubaii’s Mary Magdalene’s gorgeous rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is a high point, though I wished we could have seen a bit more of Mary’s anguish underneath the passion. The choreography by Drew McOnie is frenetic and yet also synched up in a way that suggests how a group of free-spirited individuals can morph into a protoplasmic mob. The band, led by music director Shawn Gough, rocks out from raised platforms on both sides of the stage.
It’s a propulsive and sometimes hypnotic 90 minutes that, even with what I’d call lost opportunities to explore some of the deeper conflicts, still cunningly demonstrates how quickly one can fall under the thrall of a prophet—and how quickly the mob can turn violent. As the January 6 hearings keep reminding us, that lesson remains highly relevant.