Listen to the ethereal, vaguely ominous opening notes of the Lyric Opera’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and one thing becomes undeniable: This is not your grandmother’s “Superstar.” Nor is it John Legend’s televised live “Superstar” from a few weeks ago, nor Ted Neeley’s movie “Superstar” from 1973. It’s not even the Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) – Tim Rice (lyrics) concept album that dropped in 1970. Nor has director Timothy Sheader merely replicated the Olivier Award-winning London production he originated in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2016.
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ ★★★★ When: Through May 20 Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: $44-$219 Info: lyricopera.org Run time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, with one intermission
While the Lyric production is deeply rooted in Sheader’s London staging, for its North American premiere in Chicago, the Brit has gone big. Really big.
The Lyric’s 48-member cast of principals and ensemble is almost twice as large its London predecessor. And blessed with a 37-person orchestra and including a six-piece, onstage rhythm section, this “Superstar” has a lush, glorious sound the likes of which you’ve never heard before.
Starring Heath Saunders as Jesus and Ryan Shaw as Judas, Sheader’s “Superstar” lives at the intersection of the profane and the sublime, a place where crosses morph into stripper poles, and temples turn into dens of debauchery filled with merchants literally blinded by gold.
Lloyd Webber’s score has always been borderline bombastic, from Mary Magdalene’s wonderstruck anguish in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” to Jesus’ long dark night of soul-searching in “Gethsemane.” But Lloyd Webber has a gift for weaving dissonance with three-part, major key triads. Under the baton of conductor Tom Deering, a mighty orchestra (composed primarily of Lyric Opera Orchestra musicians) surrounds the cast with sound that reaches the heavens. The sonic richness manifests in countless ways: the brassy horns manically emphasizing Judas’ torment in “Damned for All Time/Blood Money”; the soaring exuberance of the final upward key change in “Hosanna”; the diabolical undertow of the bass in “This Jesus Must Die”; the monstrous vaudeville of “Herod’s Song.” They’re all done with gorgeous musicality.
The cast is more than up to the demands of the score. As Jesus, Heath Saunders has the luminous, otherworldly beneficence you’d expect from a messiah. When he screams at the overwhelming hordes to back off or wails about being forgotten “10 minutes after I’m dead,” you can feel the humanity living alongside the divinity.
It’s almost shockingly easy to empathize with Ryan Shaw’s Judas. Here, Judas is a victim of circumstance, predestined to kill Christ and tormented by his place in history. At one point. Judas’ hands literally drip silver, a sheen as damning as a scarlet letter. When he cries out “my mind is in darkness,” you can practically see The Furies closing in on him.
As Mary Magdalene, Jo Lampert brings a stoic gender-neutral fluidity to “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard it — you’ll be moved when Lampert lets loose on the money notes. And Shaun Fleming channels evil clown creepiness as King Herod.
There are countless details Sheader uses to further the story and deepen the characters throughout. As the Apostles drunkenly croon through the Last Supper, they momentarily form a tableau that evokes Da Vinci’s famous painting of the meal. When Judas prowls the stage after handing Jesus over to the Romans, he’s carrying a microphone with a blood-red cord.
Drew McOnie’s choreography has the explosive feel of barely contained ecstasy, filled with flailing movements that evoke old time tent revivals where snake handlers spoke in tongues and miraculously cured the sick. Tom Scutt’s smoke-colored costumes give the piece a timeless feel, as does his towering, sleek, steel-and-scaffolding set. Stark and shadowy, lighting designer Lee Curan’s work is so rhythmic it almost feels like a part of the orchestra.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is a marked departure for the Lyric. It’s the first rock musical the venerable institution has staged. Let’s hope they make a habit of it.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.