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JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (National Tour)

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (National Tour)

Rock Opera
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice.
Loosely based on the Gospels' accounts of the Passion

Broadway Dallas

Director - Timothy Sheader
Choreographer - Drew McOnie
Music Director - Shawn Gough
Music Supervisor - Tom Deering
Set and Costume Designer - Tom Scutt
Lighting Designer - Lee Curran

THE COMPANY:
AARON LaVIGNE (Jesus)
OMAR LOPEZ-CEPERO (Judas)
**CHELSEA WILLIAMS (Mary)
ALVIN CRAWFORD (Caiaphas)
**GARFIELD HAMMONDS (Pilate)
TYCE GREEN (Annas)
**ERIC A. LEWIS ( Simon)
PAUL LOUIS LESSARD (Ensemble, Herod)
TOMMY McDOWELL (Ensemble, Peter)
DAVID ANDRÉ (Ensemble)
**COURTNEY ARANGO (Ensemble, Dance Captain)
WESLEY J. BARNES (Ensemble, u/s Annas, u/s Simon)
**LYDIA RUTH DAWSON ()
HOPE EASTERBROOK (Ensemble)
DEREK FERGUSON (Swing, Assistant Dance Captain, Fight Captain)
BRIAN GOLUB (Ensemble, Tenor Priest, Peter Accuser)
BRITTANY ROSE HAMMOND (Ensemble, u/s Soul Singer)
GARFIELD HAMMONDS (Ensemble, Baritone Priest, Peter Accuser)
QUIANA HOLMES (Ensemble, Soul Singer)
DARRELL T. JOE (Ensemble, Bass Priest, u/s Caiaphas)
SHEILA JONES (Ensemble, u/s Soul Singer)
JACOB LACOPO (Ensemble, u/s Herod, u/s Caiaphas)
DANNY McHUGH (Swing, u/s Herod, u/s Peter)
JENNY MOLLET (Ensemble, Soul Singer, u/s Mary)
SARAH PARKER (Ensemble, Mob Leader)
ERICK PATRICK (Ensemble, u/s Simon)
SANDYREDD (Ensemble, Soul Singer, Peter Accuser)
**COOPER STANTON (Ensemble)
CHELSEA WILLIAMS (Ensemble, u/s Mary, u/s Soul Singer)

**DENOTES UNDERSTUDY
**NOTE: SEVERAL UNDERSTUDIES WERE REVIEWED ON PRESS NIGHT


Reviewed Performance: 4/6/2022

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

“I remember when this whole thing began
No talk of God then, we called you a man
And believe me
My admiration for you hasn't died
But every word you say today
Gets twisted 'round some other way
And they'll hurt you if they think you've lied.”

-Judas, “Heaven on Their Minds” from JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

This rock opera first started out as a concept album because Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice could not get the money to mount a stage production. Broadway finally opened the stage version of JCS in 1971 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Ben Vereen was cast as Judas but early in the run took ill, so his understudy Carl Anderson took over. Once Vereen got well, both men alternated the role. Yvonne Elliman was cast as Mary and Barry Bennen as Pilate. Anderson, Elliman, and Bennen originated their roles on the concept album, played them on Broadway, then in the film version. The rock opera was met with lukewarm reviews by the Gotham critics, the majority complaining of how overblown it was in sets, costumes, lighting, and staging. The show earned five Tony nominations, but alas did not take any hardware home. It would close after 711 performances.

A much more stripped-down version of the Broadway production opened in London in 1972. This time the rock opera was a smashing success running for eight years, becoming the longest-running musical in West End history. That is until Webber’s feline musical CATS came along and clawed and hissed its way to take over the title.

Broadway revived it again in 2000 at the massive Fort Center for the Performing Arts. I reviewed this elaborate production and actually thought it was quite fascinating and powerful. They dusted off the 1971 cobwebs and updated everything: like adding guards with AK guns, fresh orchestrations, and a dazzling cast. The New York critics gave it mixed reviews, but it went on to receive a Tony nomination for Best revival. It would run for 161 performances.

In 2012 it was revived once again by Director Des McAnuff, who directed this version originally at Stratford Shakespeare Festival. This version earned two Tony nominations, including Best Revival. The rock opera played 116 performances before closing at the Neil Simon Theatre.

There is of course the 1973 Norman Jewison film version which was shot in Israel. Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, and Yvonne Elliman were all nominated for Golden Globe Awards as well as Best Motion Picture Musical. It also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Score. At the box office, the film grossed $24.5 million, which made it the highest-grossing musical in the U.S for 1973.

Let’s not forget TV! In 2018 NBC aired a live concert version of JCS starring EGOT John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, Alice Cooper as King Herod, and Norm Lewis as Caiaphas. It was both a critical and ratings smash hit.

This takes us to this current, brand-new national tour. Suffice to say this company has been through a lot in the last two years. So, to finally make it to the Music Hall this company deserves a standing ovation from the get-go!

This company had barely kicked off its national tour when the pandemic hit in 2020. These actors, musicians, production team members, tech crew, etc. had to fly back home now without a job and could not go back into another show because as we all know live theater, the arts, etc. were all shut down. Just like the rest of us who love this craft of theater, live theater with an audience was silenced for two years. When would we see a live audience or theater again? But then finally Broadway opened its doors again, which gave the green light for national tours to also hit the road to bring their talents and art back on the road and travel through this nation. But then once again the JSC company was hit with another massive blow. When the tour stopped in Milwaukee in November 2021, the actor portraying Judas was arrested for charges related to the January 6 Capitol riot. But that’s why in the theater we have understudies, the role was recast immediately and the tour went on without missing a beat. That’s the magic and professionalism of actors! To go through ALL of this, you just want to support them even more in the audience! Thus, it was quite thrilling that the moment the main drop disappeared and a lone light shined on the guitarist, the second he started to play the beginning chords of that incredible overture, Wednesday night’s audience erupted into loud, joyous applause.

It is quite evident that Director Timothy Sheader’s vision of JCS was to pay homage to the 1970 concept album. The cast throughout the evening used handheld mics and mic stands, they also had body mics on. There was one set and a somber tone in the color palette when it came to both the costumes and sets. You really can’t tell what time period it’s set, except that is possibly somewhere apocalyptic. Sheader does away with an intermission, so be forewarned! It is a 90-minute rock opera. As someone who did a production of JCS and has seen at least 11 productions of it as well, Sheader did not cut a single song, not that I could tell. I did get a sense that some dance breaks were chiseled down a tiny bit (“Simon Zealotes” and “Superstar” for example). Having said this, the pace was spot on. The leads took flawless dramatic moments to let the emotional subtext breathe into the audience, then went into the next number. His staging around the construction of a skyscraper and massive crucifix strewn on the stage floor was outstanding.! It had immense character development and subtext, it flowed beautifully, and at times leaves you in quiet shock and admiration by what you see because it speaks volumes. I’ll give you a couple of hints to keep an eye out for: the last supper, Juda’s "Damned for All Time/Blood Money" and “Judas Death;” Christ’s “Gethsemane;” and the final scene. The concept to use mounds of gold glitter for the “39 lashes” is quite vivid to see from the audience. This visual plays in a dramatic way within the final scene-see if you can catch it Sheader’s direction of this worldwide well-known hit and admired material is fresh, exciting, haunting, and emotional.

The choreography by Drew McOnie reminds one of the works of Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, and has the style of Avant-Garde. He has constant dance movement and choreography throughout the rock opera, from the rock thumping anthems to the soft ballad solos, and unfortunately, that is where this version veers off the path of artistic success off and on all evening long. The choreography is unique and the company pours all their heart, bodies, and energy with outstanding results. But visually in some of the musical numbers, McOnie’s creation of dance did not sync whatsoever to the music or the lyrics. The choreography instead was going against the beats and rhythms or did not provide visual subtext, character development, etc. to the lyrics or situations happening on stage. It was perplexing and at times just not necessary for those measures of music or that scene. Towards the end it became frustrating to watch. A couple of Examples, “Everything’s Alright” sung by Mary. A beautiful ballad of Mary reaching out to Jesus, her first moment to really connect to him, to make him understand her. But behind her are three backup singers doing all these sensual, gyrating dance movements. I didn’t get it. Are they reminding the audience of Mary’s past? Alas, it pulled focus from Mary. Another example is “Superstar.” This is a number everyone cannot wait to see. It’s the 11:00 O’clock number where the choreography is out of this world matching the soaring vocals and gospel-infused music. Instead, McOnie choreographed something that was a mixture of a mosh pit, a riot, and movement against the beat. Final example: “Judas Death,” as he begins to sing this vocally challenging ballad with raw emotion, a lone dancer appears upstage of Judas (and lit) and begins to do these frenzied, hyper dance moments, extending, waving, and swirling her arms like crazy and flipping her hair all over the place. It was extremely distracting and it had no connection whatsoever to Judas or his ballad. This “solo dance” theme popped up off and on throughout the show during a soloist’s number (i.e., Jesus, Mary, etc.) Did that same choreography, but it never made any logical sense, purpose, or reason WHY she had to be there or WHAT on earth did it mean. What did it symbolize? The leads never reacted or conversed with her. Suffice to say I was baffled.

A thunderous standing ovation must be bestowed to Musical Director Shawn Gough and his balls to wall rocking eleven-piece orchestra. They are perched on the upper level of the set, and all evening long they brought impeccable, fresh, thunderous life to that Webber score. It did NOT go unnoticed to us JCS aficionados the magnetizing and vigorous new orchestrations within the score. From the new, free-flowing guitar licks by Mike Frederick in the overture to the dazzling saxophone solo by Joe LaRocca. The orchestra never once overpowered the cast. The score sounded so raw and pure, heart-pounding, rock, and roll. Several of us in the house kept nodding our heads in the dark to the beats and licks! This was by far one of the best touring orchestras I’ve heard come through Dallas.

Set/ Costume Designer Tom Scutt and Lighting Designer Lee Curran worked from a very somber color palette. Scutt’s set is a rusted multi-tiered skyscraper under construction. On stage left is a huge fallen crucifix. His costumes are in hues of greys, dirty whites, dark blues, blacks, and dark purples. For the priests, he pays homage to the film version by having a similar square jeweled festooned centerpiece on each priest, each one with his own assigned color. The only time we see color is during the brothel scene and of course King Herod. He was in gold lame. Judas wears a black costume for the “Superstar” number, see if you can catch the symbolism within his costume. Excellent subtext provided by Scutt here! Curran’s lighting is full of neutral colors for most of the evening. He does throw in shards of reds and golds. His lighting sequence for “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)" and the final last two scenes of the rock opera will put a lump in your throat. I’ll leave it there.

The JCS ensemble was exceptional from the second they ran on stage from the audience to the very end as they left the crucifixion scene in haunting silence. Their energy exploded and never once waned. Their vocals were robust, their acting matched the principals, and their execution of the choreography was smashing. They had quite a few costume changes that were rapid, but they returned on stage in full character, never letting the audience in on the synchronized chaos that is backstage in the dark costume changing. Each one of them made this rock opera explode to the artistic success that it has achieved.

Tommy McDowell does a solid job with Peter, the disciple who betrays Jesus thrice. His vocal duet with Mary in “Could We Start Again Please?” was marvelous. **Eric A. Lewis as Simon, unfortunately, fell into the trap that I’ve seen other actors do in this role. Larry Marshall originated the role on film and many feel he gave THE definite vocal performance of “Simon Zealotes.” His vocal riffs are out of this world magnificent. Many actors try to either imitate his vocal riffs or do their version of riffs, either way, they crumble in defeat. It’s a tough song to sing. You have to find the right melodic, soulful, full-out vocal belt with iron-clad vibrato to land those riffs. On Wednesday night Mr. Lewis came right out of the gate at a 10 with riffs, and just struggled to find a way to improvise his riffs, but he was battling against the ensemble and orchestra, and it wasn’t matching. He sounded a beat behind or ahead or could not sustain the notes. I give him kudos for attempting them, but with this song, you just can’t do that. Hopefully, he’ll have more chances with the orchestra to nail this incredible soulful anthem down.

Alvin Crawford (Caiaphas) and Tyce Green (Annas) were splendid as the two main priests who were determined to destroy Christ. It was a nice sigh of relief that both talented actors completely avoided the trap of imitating the film versions of these two roles. Crawford gave Caiaphas a massive cloak of evil jealousy and hatred of this man he keeps hearing about. His facial expressions were subtle but you could feel his rage and hatred seething and boiling underneath his chest and piercing eyes. His bass/baritone voice was grandiose and exciting. His lower range is so rich and full, it would make Darth Vader pack up his Ewok pajamas and haul his butt back to the death star. His co-conspirator Annas is played to wicked perfection by Tyce Green. The actor slithers into his light and immediately commands the stage. His high tenor vocals matched with clean, crisp diction, he feels and understands each lyric. He doesn’t “SING” the lyric, he feels, and understands what it means, thus giving his characterization much more dramatic substance. He and Crawford had amazing stage presence and play off each other like two evil dark lords. They never once fall into camp or histrionics, both characteristics that I’ve seen other actors fall into in these roles. Instead, both actors crafted two men of power who are frightened of someone who is getting more power, and the people in his corner, so they want him out. First-rate work was created by both of these thespians.

It's been fifty years now, and yet somehow the role of King Herod is still being portrayed as some flamboyant, extravagant queen. Some actors in a couple of productions I’ve sat through do tone down the sass, but still, have the undercurrent of sashay glittering underneath. Like other cultures in society, this stereotype has now become offensive and an insult to the LGBTQ community. Thus, you have to wonder, why continue to do this role within that character shell? Or are we making a mountain out of a molehill here? That’s for you the audience member to decide here. Paul Louis Lessard appears as Herod swathed in cascades of shimmering gold lame. I don’t know if the entire audience noticed, but his massive, billowing cape has a never-ending train that goes far upstage! Underneath his cape is a gold bodysuit encrusted with mirrors and stones, a gold, sparkling Tuxedo jacket with tails, and thigh-high boots covered in shimmering black stones. His face is painted and powdered to resemble a mixture of Liza, Greta Garbo, and Freddie Mercury. His body posture and movements, his vocal inflections, musicality, and interpretation of his scene-stealing comedic song- pour all of this into Lessard’s characterization and you get a highly comical performance that is possessed by Zaza from LA CAGE AUX FOLLIES, Dr. Frank-N-Furter from ROCKY HORROR, and a sprinkling of Liza and the Emcee from CABARET. Lessard delivered a crowd-pleasing, stellar performance going by the reactions and applause Wednesday night. And yet, I still felt uncomfortable seeing the role pigeonholed in a stereotype that so many have fought so hard to wipe away from what society tends to box a culture into that way.

As Mary Magdalene, **Chelsea Williams delivers a soothing, touching performance as the lone female lead in this Webber/Rice rock opera. She was a little stiff and vocally nervous with her solo, "Everything's Alright". However, when she got to her second big solo, "I Don't Know How to Love Him", she nailed the powerful ballad with golden vocal success. She relaxed into the song and soaked in the truth of what the lyrics meant in this well-known number. You clearly felt her pour honest emotions of Mary’s conflicted heart with her emotions to this man named Jesus, we felt her honest confusion, pain, and loneliness. This was an outstanding job created by Williams. Later on, she again hit payola with the gorgeous duet “Could We Start Again Please?” An exquisite ballad that was specifically written for original star Yvonne Elliman for the film and then placed into the stage production from that point on. Williams held her own-and more- with her male co-stars.

Pilate is a complex role in this rock opera. He is much more than a villain. He is a mere mortal-and he KNOWS this- and he has this man who clearly has been touched by some force or a true god- and he is scared as hell of what this man named Jesus will do to him. The role has layers of subtext and demands great attention to the minute detail. **Garfield Hammonds as Pilate possesses solid vocals with a terrific baritone range. He sings the songs assigned to the role very well, but sadly he did not attach his voice, body, and acting craft to the lyrics and subtext within the very skin of the role. Also, he sorely lacked the needed bombastic, emotional chemistry with Jesus (Aaron LaVigne), Hammonds seem to focus on the musical notes and the memorization of the lyrics. His first solo, “Pilate’s Dream” he has these lyrics:
“I dreamed I met a Galilean / A most amazing man…
Then I saw thousands of millions / Crying for this man
And then I heard them mentioning my name And leaving me the blame.”
That is a WEALTH of subtext for an actor to devour and flesh out and deliver to the audience. Regrettably, Hammonds sang straight thru the lyrics and did not release the range of emotion or subtext of what his vision of Pilate was feeling in this song. This number is so important because it sets Pilate’s emotional journey for the audience to travel on right up to the horrific 39 lashes. If there is no groundwork provided, then it comes off anti-climactic. And tragically that is what happened Wednesday evening. LaVigne (Jesus) was on level 10, while Hammonds was stuck on 4. His big number “Trial Before Pilate/39 Lashes” is a dark, tormented, frightening, cruel, and sadistic solo for him. But Hammonds did not reach that level of required intensity. He is a talented singer, no doubt about that, but needs to peel back the layers of subtext to get to the heart of this complicated, destructive man. I am sure in time he can.

What can make or break any production of JCS depends on the casting of its two male principal roles. This rock opera demands a dynamic pair of actors/singers in the roles of Jesus and Judas. In this national tour, they have cast two gentlemen that deliver jaw-dropping, transcendent performances.

The moment the stage lights captured Omar Lopez-Cepero’s handsome features, I was completely caught off guard, in a great way. This was the first time EVER that I have seen a Latino actor in the role of Judas. Now, if you are a Hispanic Catholic (like myself) this adds new, rich textures to Judas’s subtext and characterization that I’ve never thought of before. It just opened the creative door much more, especially when it comes to his reasoning for giving Caiaphas and the priests key info about where Jesus was. The guilt as a Catholic. I saw the role in a whole new light. And it was clearly evident in Cepero’s spectacular performance as well. He undoubtedly allowed his Catholic faith to ebb within his acting craft in several key scenes, such as the aforementioned 300 silver pieces scene. His facial expressions and vocal ferocity and roar within his vocals were bone-chilling because you could feel and see the guilt slice into his heart deeply. Cepero’s interpretation and vision of Judas was a bold, unique, new approach that I found refreshing. Usually, actors in this role start at a “9” in intensity. In most productions of JCS, we the audience are dropped into Jesus and Judas’s friendship right when Jesus has hit the meteoric rise of fame and hype of his miracles and sermons. We see Judas is already freaking out and constantly verbally lashing out at him, be it leading on the followers, soaking in the hype, or Mary’s attention. In this production, Cepero smartly avoids all this. His approach to Judas is as a best friend who is slowly beginning to see and sense that something is not right here. He’s seeing his friendship slipping away and not liking the man his friend is becoming. Cepero wisely glides emotionally up to the apex of his characterization, thus when we get to his betrayal and the deplorable, painful outcome from this delivered in a much, much more emotional impact, which Cepero devours with astonishing vocals. Cepero has a tenor range that is out of this world mind-blowing! He possesses that rare gift that even when he sings in falsetto he can still belt with full volume! He goes all over the scales within the music in many of his songs, creating ultra-modern, original, riveting new interpretations of such songs as "Heaven on Their Minds"; "Damned for All Time/Blood Money"; "Judas' Death"; and “Superstar.” He also does something that many past actors could not do- ONLY Carl Anderson did- which is to sustain those impossible high rock tenor vocals for several long measures. Cepero did that! Over and over, song after song! I was left flabbergasted in my seat. Mr. Cepero delivers the BEST performance of Judas that I have ever seen on stage. Period. From Broadway to national tours, he outshined them all.

Any actor who takes on the title role in JCS has a mighty mountain to climb over to succeed. He has to erase the minds of those in the audience who only have Ted Neeley’s iconic performance preserved on celluloid or from the original soundtrack who created the definite rock vocals for Jesus. Or this actor has to balance very carefully that his performance is respectful to “him,” but in that same path he also must create as an actor/singer a fully fleshed out man with flaws. On top of all that he has to carry on his shoulders this rock opera because after all it is centered and focused all on him. That’s a lot for any actor to manage. I’ve seen some crumble from the pressure, and others succeed. Aaron LaVigne did not disappoint, not by a long shot!

LaVigne is the youngest performer I’ve seen cast in this role. What separates him from all the other actors I’ve seen who have tackled this role is his completely different approach to the role. His vision of this son of a carpenter was that of a soft-spoken man who simply wants to help his people, not aware or cares of all the hype going on outside. LaVigne’s facial expressions and body language toward Judas is that of a best friend who keeps reaching out trying to find a resolution to their conflicts or worse, save their disintegrating friendship. As the opera progresses you see LaVigne’s characterization slowly transform realizing there is no hope. Once he has hit his limit, LaVigne’s explosion towards Cepero’s Judas now has much more dramatic weight and organic realism that seemed to be missing in past versions. When it came to his latter work, LaVigne again earns critical praise. From his last night being free (after the last supper), to Pilate’s trial, to the brutal 39 lashes, to the end, he does phenomenal work. It’s an incredibly moving and fascinating observation to see this striking bold approach to the acting craft and molding of this role.

Vocally LaVigne has a set of rock pipes that make the walls of the Music Hall quiver and the ceiling swell up like a delicious bag of butter popcorn ready to explode in the microwave oven! This insanely talented singer can belt, and I mean BELT! But with a rocker’s growl right underneath it. His vibrato is made of solid steel, it supports his belt beautifully and gives his long sustaining notes a sturdy, solid base so that his vocals never wobble or go off-key within those long notes. In several numbers, he plays guitar (another first in this role I’ve seen!) and he does a splendid job with the musical numbers throughout the first half of the rock opera, but then came "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)". Aaron LaVigne shredded his heart out of his rib cage and let out those unbelievable vocals explode and uproar like a beast eating itself out of its chains and clawing out with brutal fury. This was the first time I’ve seen the staging where Jesus was given full use of the stage and its props. LaVigne took full advantage of this. This added so much more where the orchestra swells into that glorious crescendo of music and then subsides. This gave LaVigne’s Jesus so, so much more dramatic impact and subtext to the next set of lyrics. He was sensational in what accomplished with his acting craft, rocker vocal gymnastics, and characterization with this heavy dramatic ballad. Full confession- This is one of my personal favorite numbers in the score, and I whispered in my seat, “my god. Wow” when he finished the number. The audience agreed as he received prolonged deafening applause. Several audience members all around the house stood up! LaVigne’s performance of "Gethsemane" received the longest and loudest round of applause of the night. Aaron LaVigne delivered-in my humble opinion-an astonishing, staggering, and monumental performance as Jesus not only in this national tour but from any other actor I’ve seen in this role, which includes Broadway and past National tours.

This national tour demands your attendance. It has been reimagined and retooled to be thoroughly enjoyed by both JCS devoted fans and to those who know nothing about it. JSC is far from the usual cookie-cutter musicals that tend to flood national tours lately. It has heart-pumping rock and superlative performances backed by an epic orchestra. You just have to see it. Want to know what’s all the buzz you keep hearing? It’s everyone talking about this JCS national tour and insisting that you MUST GO and see it!

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Single tickets for JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR start at $30 (pricing subject to change) and are on sale now at DallasSummerMusicals.org or by phone at 800-982-2787. Orders for groups of ten (10) or more may be placed by calling (214) 426-4768 or emailing Groups@DallasSummerMusicals.org.

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