Aug. 3—Hosanna! "Jesus Christ Superstar" is testifying at the Schuster Center with riveting, relevant finesse proving everything old can certainly be new again.
The bold, controversial and electrifying 1970 rock opera by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice has arrived in the form of an outstanding 50th anniversary national tour, which is playing its final stop in Dayton through Aug. 7 courtesy of Dayton Live's Premier Health Broadway in Dayton Series. A liberating product of the post-"Hair" musical theatre revolution, a critical time when Broadway was challenged and influenced by risk-taking Baby Boomers unafraid to defy the status quo, the sung-through opus chronicles the final week in the life of Jesus Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot.
Over the past five decades, it's been easy to dismiss Lloyd Webber's legacy as merely tied or resigned to dancing felines. But this cool, slick, fast-moving production — exuberantly grounded in contemporary impulses — exhibits why his tuneful, explosive contributions here are among the best in his repertoire. Aided by Rice's clever, thought-provoking lyrics delving into the intriguing psychology of characters we have preconceived notions about, Lloyd Webber constantly and dramatically shifts tone, nuance and rhythm with a fierce urgency that rattles the soul. Who needs a chandelier, roller skates or a floating tire when the fickleness of humanity sung to the hilt is enough to passionately drive a story?
Here are five reasons to see this show, originally staged in an acclaimed, Olivier Award-winning 2016 revival at London's Regent's Park Open Air Theatre.
THE UNDERSTATED CENTER OF ATTENTION
Cincinnati native Aaron LaVigne brings a refreshingly understated, singer-songwriter vibe to his first-rate, emotionally drained portrayal of Jesus. He embodies the role from the exhaustive yet obedient vantage point of Rice's remarkable lyrics in "Gethsemane." "Then I was inspired — now I'm sad and tired" fuels LaVigne's motivations, particularly within the presence of his disciples and as situations swell to a breaking point with the government. And as for his rendition of "Gethsemane," one of the finest musical theatre monologues, he effectively accelerates the pace at the outset with guitar in tow but smoothly builds the drama with the anguished angst it deserves as an actor's showcase.
OBJECTS OF AFFECTION WITH OPPOSING VIEWS
Pepe Nufrio (a standby Judas on opening night for Omar Lopez-Cepero) and Jenna Rubaii (Mary Magdalene) create great tension as both are believably drawn to LaVigne's laidback, unassuming aura. Nufrio, a vocal powerhouse from Madrid, Spain, raising the roof in "Heaven on Their Minds," "Damned For All Time" and "Superstar," is appropriately conflicted, frustrated and unyielding throughout. Rubaii's gentleness and inquisitiveness is beautifully captured in her moving rendition of the folk/rock ballad "I Don't Know How To Love Him."
SUPPORTING PLAYERS SHINE
This rock opera is blessed with supporting players intrinsically at ease in their roles. Alvin Crawford's imposing bass is perfect for high priest Caiaphas, whose transaction with Judas concerning 30 pieces of silver is artfully conceived here. Tyce Green, who has toured with such bands as Heart and Air Supply, also intimidates as Annas, Caiaphas' fellow priest. In addition, Garfield Hammonds is a terrifically authoritative Pontius Pilate, Paul Louis Lessard brings humorous flair to King Herod, Eric A. Lewis (Simon) injects rousing gospel into "Simon Zealotes," inviting tenor Tommy McDowell (Peter) joins Rubaii for a lovely "Could We Start Again, Please," and expressive dancer Sarah Parker excels as Mob Leader.
CRISP STAGECRAFT WITH ROCK CONCERT EDGE
Director Timothy Sheader's vision for the show as musical theatre-meets-rock concert is clearly, crisply executed. With microphones and microphone stands passed among the actors in addition to a key sequence bolstered by dazzling doses of descending glitter, this production becomes a show within a show, especially as Lee Curran's splendid lighting design fuels the arena essence. Also noteworthy: scenic designer Tom Scutt's trees in the rear of the stage, reminding the audience that the garden of Gethsemane is an omnipresent factor.
SUPERB CHOREOGRAPHY AND PHYSICALITY
Drew McOnie's superb choreography for the dynamic ensemble lives in an exhilarating Twyla Tharp-meets-Fatima Robinson space. McOnie winningly weaves the concept of mob mentality into wonderfully physical routines that are unified, sharp, energetic and current.
HOW TO GO
What: "Jesus Christ Superstar"
Where: Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton
When: Through Aug. 7; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets and more info: Contact Dayton Live by phone at 937-228-3630 or visit online at daytonlive.org
FYI: The production is performed in 90 minutes without intermission