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Concert Reviews:
"Jesus Christ Superstar" gets post-modern makeover at Detroit Opera House

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Wednesday, February 5, 2020

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Perhaps because it started life 50 years ago as a concept album rather than prescribed stage show, "Jesus Christ Superstar" has always been open to broad interpretations -- a kind of blank slate for directors to offer their flesh-and-blood take on the gospels.

So it seems appropriate for the golden anniversary tour of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera to dramatically reimagine the piece, and in that regard the show, running through Sunday, Feb. 9 at the Detroit Opera House, doesn't disappoint.

Director Timothy Sheader, in fact, gives us an energetic, engaging and at times messy post-modern take on the last week of Jesus' life -- up to including the man himself. Played by Aaron LaVigne, this year's Jesus sports a man-bun and totes around an acoustic guitar; He's one Hackensack away from the parking lot of a Dave Matthews Band concert and one angsty, pained expression away from his next therapist appointment. His Apostles and other followers are clothed like post-apocalyptic denizens of the "Waterworld" and "Mad Max," while Drew Mconie's ensemble choreography hails from the school of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.

The minimalist stage set is a kind of Thunderdome as well, two tiers of steel-style girders -- a nod to the wildly successful 2018 TV special "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert" -- while the hand-held microphones and customized mic stands used throughout the 90-minute, no-intermission show give this "Superstar" the feel of a concert for a large ensemble rather than a theater musical.

Within all that is a nimble sleekness that lets "Superstar" 50 slide past some of its less well-conceived spots -- particularly the unintentionally comic temple priests, bare-chested and black-robed and, to the actors' credit, straight-faced in their bad guy caricature. And the relatively small physical stage space, bisected by a cross-like ramp that runs from rear to front, makes the production seem cluttered during the large-group dance numbers when the cast members seem to be trying to stay out of each other's way.

But there's invention here, too. Without spoilers, suffice to say that the 39 lashes during "Trial Before Pilate" are presented in a unique (that's a compliment) manner, while the signature "Superstar" is bracingly brutal. And the concluding "John Nineteen Forty-One" adds Jesus' resurrection -- as well as a reconciliation with Judas Iscariot -- for a conclusion that's more satisfying than conventional presentations from the past.

The latest "Superstar" also boasts a strong singing cast, albeit one whose overall restraint makes the big, bombastic vocal moments often jarring. LaVigne and James Delisco Beeks, as Judas, hold their own discernible styles throughout, while Jenna Rubah voices an earthy, grounded Mary Magdelene in "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and a duet with Tommy McDowell in "Peter's Denial." Alvin Crawford's baritone, meanwhile, shakes the room as High Priest Ciaphas.

And joining a long line of "King Herod's Song" interpreters, Okemos' Paul Louis Lessard goes full-on Louis XIV Sun King, clad in gold robe and frock and singing with Marlene Dietrich high camp -- even, on opening night, as he was losing one of his false eyelashes.

This version of "Superstar" certainly adds a bold perspective to the musical's heritage. It won't offend the faithful, and the stripped-own take might just convert younger attendees who, once in the fold, will no doubt experience a few more revisions as time marches, and dances, on.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" runs through Sunday, Feb. 9 at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St., Detroit. $35 and up. 313-961-3500 or broadwayindetroit.com.

Web Site: www.broadwayindetroit.com

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