Since it arrived on the Broadway stage in 1971, “Jesus Christ Superstar” — the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice “rock opera” that chronicles the last week in Jesus’ life as recounted in the Gospels — has inspired everything from adoration and controversy to mockery and parody. But the production of the musical that opened over the weekend at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre inspires nothing less than awe from first note to last.

A powerhouse rendering of both the story and the score, it takes what can too often be seen as a somewhat kitschy, proto-disco outgrowth of Vatican II and its “popularizing” of the Catholic mass, and taps into an altogether riveting, soul-powered, rhythm-and-blues beauty. The fact that it is being performed by an entirely African-American cast full of terrific actors with altogether spellbinding voices (several with Broadway credits, but many Chicago-based) unquestionably adds a new dimension. At the same time, this “Jesus Christ Superstar,” directed and choreographed with the lean, fast-moving, uncompromising, brutally honest vision of Ron Kellum, could not feel more universal.

‘JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’
Highly recommended
When: Through May 28
Where: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
Tickets: $44 – $59
Info: (630) 896-6666;
www.ParamountAurora.com
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission

Evan Tyrone Martin (center) plays Jesus of Nazareth in Paramount Theatre’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

The Paramount production, which follows on the heels of its bravura revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” is similarly opera-house worthy. And more than most editions of this sung-through show, it handles the arguments, internal conflicts and power politics of the piece with unique sharpness and clarity (all aided by the performers’ impeccable diction), balancing the characters’ feelings of doubt, fear, realism, ambivalence and faith in a remarkable way. Its co-music directors and conductors, Kory Danielson and Tom Vendafreddo, also have illuminated the depth and enhanced the beauty of Webber’s score in a unique way, with their formidable orchestra in total lockstep.

Set against Kevin Depinet’s latest magnificent set, a suggestion of the massive columns and stairs of the Temple in Jerusalem (dramatically lit by Greg Hofmann), the story begins as Judas Iscariot (the show-stopping, clarion-voiced Mykal Kilgore) sings “Heaven on Their Minds.” Though he loves Jesus and has been his faithful “right-hand man,” he is becoming increasingly fearful that Jesus is moving down a dangerous road, attracting fervent followers who think of him as the son of God rather than just a man. And he believes this will lead to a dangerous response from the Roman rulers.

If Judas is all speed, fire and pragmatism, Jesus, as played by the tall, slender, easily graceful, warm-voiced Evan Tyrone Martin, is the essence of deliberate, internalized intensity. Dressed in a flowing white tunic, he moves with a certain quietness — saying little, lightly touching his followers with a preternatural calm, but mostly just allowing them to encircle him. At the same time, he is outspoken enough to counter Judas, who chides him for consorting with the prostitute Mary Magdalene (Felicia Boswell, a petite beauty with a voice of radiant heat, who brings her own sense of calm to “Everything’s Alright”).

Also worried that Jesus and his followers will put the Jewish community in jeopardy — believing that the Roman rulers of Jerusalem would turn against all Jews, rather than just Jesus’ rebellious followers — is Caiaphas, their high priest (played by Lorenzo Rush Jr., a solidly built man with a marvelously resonant bass voice that ideally underpins “This Jesus Must Die”). And he is backed by his “yes man,” the priest, Annas (Avionce Hoyles is spot on here).

Jesus, exhausted by the demands of his followers, is himself fearful of zealots like Simon (well-played by Mark J.P. Hood), while Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea (the excellent Rufus Bonds Jr.), who makes the case for not executing Jesus, sings a song about a dream in which he is ultimately blamed for Jesus’ death.

The show’s second act begins with the fateful Last Supper and Judas’ kiss of betrayal. Later, alone in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest, Jesus sings one of the show’s most probing and anguished songs — confessing his doubts, making it clear that he knows what lies ahead for him and wondering if his sacrifice will make any difference in the world. Martin does an exceptional job of capturing that inner turmoil.

This being the theater, of course, there must be some “comic relief,” and it comes by way of King Herod (also played by Hoyles) and a fully campy production number. But when it comes time for the crucifixion, Kellum spares nothing. It is as dark and gruesome as it must be, and is followed by a truly mystical ascension. As for pure vocal transcendence, there is “John 19:14,” the a cappella finale, in which the full ensemble of glorious voices joins to create a sound that could make a believer out of anyone.

Felicia Boswell plays Mary Magdalene and Evan Tyrone Martin is Jesus of Nazareth in Paramount Theatre’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)