When the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway in 1971, there were already scores of JC fans. They knew every word to songs such as “What’s the Buzz” and “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” because it started as a radical concept album, not a stage work, which may explain why we don’t know how to love the reinvented Superstar on view at the Civic Theatre through Nov. 17.
The plot is the same. We follow the final days of Jesus (Aaron LaVigne) with his adoring apostle Judas (James Delisco Beeks) who operates like a narrator. He thinks his friend Jesus is too full of himself. He’s also miffed that JC spends too much time with his lady friend, Mary Magdalene (Jenna Rubaii).
Strange thing, it’s mystifying how the songs we grew up with, by then 21-year-old composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and 25-year-old lyricist Tim Rice, don’t sound the same as they did on the old stereo.
The solos are outstanding, especially Rubaii in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and Tommy Sherlock as the sinister Pilate. LaVignine as Jesus has strong vocals and plays guitar. But director Timothy Sheader turns this national tour into a blasting rock concert with smoke and eyeball-blasting lights.
The band is perched on industrial scaffolds that evoke modern cities, and they’re loud and authentic. The trade-off is not being able to discern the lyrics, especially with the full cast, which is also the plague of the Civic Theatre, known as the barn. Damn. If you grew up with the coveted brown album, and your own volume control, this concert approach will make you strain and swear.
The show is so energized and fast that it’s tough to follow the story, even though we know the ending, and it’s a buzz kill. It begins with Jesus arriving in Jerusalem and ends with shocking cruelty and the Crucifixion.
Through the magic of theatre, glitter sticks to fake blood in 39 lashes, and Jesus twitches as he hangs on a mechanical cross that unfolds like a giant exercise machine. The priests dance with microphones that double as scepters. Aside from some spooky masks and Paul Louis Lessard who gives Herod a gold drama queen king, costumes are generally drab and baggy, especially in the crotch.
This production has an edgy vibe, but viewers will long for heartfelt character interactions and a few seconds to breathe. The dancing has hip-hop syncopations which complement the score, but this 50th anniversary national tour is “sung-through” at warp speed without intermission, and we want to rewind it to hear and process the dissonance and love.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through Nov. 17. www.broadwaysd.com