Chicago Lyric’s North American premiere of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ earns praise and awe
By Philip Potempa
Any audience entering the Lyric Opera House in Chicago is immediately dazzled and immersed in opulence from the first glances around the lobby and performance space.
Add to this the experience, the lavish North American premiere of Timothy Sheader’s Olivier Award-winning production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,“ and the passion, emotion and excitement exceed all expectations.
What began five years ago in 2013 as an amazing gift from the great minds at the Chicago Lyric to bring blend a bit of Broadway into the already stunningly engaging and expertly executed opera programming season, has now become my favorite theater seat tradition of Spring in the Windy City.
Billed as the Lyric’s American Musical Theater Initiative, the 2013 launch had director Gary Griffin leading the way with a stage spectacle run of “Oklahoma!” coinciding with the musical’s 70th anniversary. At the same time, the Lyric treated audiences to the entire five-year span of planned titles, all in homage to classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, an amazing commitment which I’m told no other opera company in the world has made such long-term dedication to producing American musical theater on an annual basis. Plans and dates for “The Sound of Music” (2014), “Carousel”(2015), “The King and I” (2016), and “South Pacific” (2017) were immediately released.
But the big question was what would 2018 hold for eager audiences?
Chicago Lyric’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” continues the musical magic and momentum and the production design and talent on display is unmatched. (Lyric has already announced Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim‘s stage masterpiece “West Side Story” is up next in 2019.
The Lyric’s production features Heath Saunders as Jesus, Ryan Shaw as Judas, Jo Lampert as Mary Magdalene, Michael Cunio as Pilate, Mykal Kilgore as Simon
Zealotes, Shaun Fleming as Herod, Joseph Anthony Byrd as Annas, Cavin Cornwall as Caiaphas and Andrew Mueller as Peter, with a total of 48 cast members and 37 musicians, including members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Note, the 2016 London performances for The Regent’s Park Theatre was comprised of just 11 musicians and 27 cast members.
Set in two acts, “Jesus Christ Superstar” tells the story of the final seven days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and dramatizes Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the unrest caused by his preaching and his popularity, his betrayal by Judas, the trial before Pontius Pilate, and his ultimate crucifixion. Three-time Olivier Award winner Sheader has created a reimagined work to resonate, engage and entertain Lyric audiences.
Saunders and Shaw are a perfect contrast in their every scene and musical number. Saunders beautifully segues from moments of contemplation, prayer and understanding in musical numbers like “Everything’s Alright” and “Gethsemane,” while also able to erupt into the emotional song strength for “The Temple” and “The Crucifixion.” Shaw captures all of the rage and confusion of Judas with powerful vocals and expertly focus drama at every turn, especially shining in the opener “Heaven on Their Minds” and “Damned for All Time.” Lampert’s Mary enchants with entrancement, especially in the spotlight for “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Performances for the “heavy” duty roles are deftly executed with duo Bryd and Cornwall cloaked as the high priests and carrying their wonderful baritone blend for “This Jesus Must Die” and “Blood Money.” (Using clever design, the high priest scepters double as would-be microphones.)
Cunio earns his accolades as Pilate. In August 2015, I interviewed the Broadway performing artist and Under the Streetlamp singer at the time when he was working on growing a beard to step into the sandals of Jesus for the title role in “Jesus Christ Superstar” for a Star Productions run of “Jesus Christ Superstar” produced by Charlie Blum at Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville. “This is the role I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he told me back then, having no idea he’d be the leading talent opposition in the same stage musical story just a few years later as the conflicted governor who condemns Christ for in a Lyric opportunity of a lifetime.
As for Fleming’s over-the-top fun go-around as Herod, it’s royal, rowdy and rich, just as audiences anticipate.
Philip Potempa is a veteran journalist and published author. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.