When two 20-somethings recorded a musical version of the Passion of Jesus Christ in 1971, rock opera was an innovation. Then Norman Jewison turned Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score and Tim Rice’s lyrics into the iconic 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar, slapping audiences awake with an electrified take on the scriptures.
Forty years later, the experiment is an international phenomenon, staged in concert by Opera AACC with riveting effect. Remarkable singing and acting and uncommonly clear diction make the story clear and personal in a way the film did not.
With stars of the local rock and musical theater scene headlining, vocal pyrotechnics are the signature of this tale. Robert Bradley, frontman for the local progressive rock band Aries, is an agonized Judas. From the angst-ridden opener, Heaven on Their Minds, to his defiant final Superstar, he is charismatic, wailing to his vocal edge.
Likewise, Benjamin Lurye — who starred in Toby’s recent production of Lloyd Webber and Rice’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — channels Jesus’ turmoil with finesse. His Gethsemane is moving for its hush and stunning for his octave falsetto cry.
Mary Magdalene, played by Emily Sergo, a Colonial Players’ favorite, is a soothing balm to their tensions, notably in the popular Everything’s Alright. Despite having to fight the orchestra’s tempo, Summer Garden perennial Peter N. Crews impresses as Pilate for his officious and resonant patter in The Trial. Augustino Zapata as Caiaphas exhibits thrilling range in Blood Money alongside basso-profundo Larry Ellinghaus as Annas and Leonard Gilbert as the Priest.
Christopher Leabhart dazzles as King Herod à la Elton John. Anwar Thomas’ dancing delights in Simon Zealotous. And Greg Baron distinguishes himself from the rest of the chorus in the small role of Peter.
The production is minimally staged, with only a gel-screen backdrop, two platforms and stairs, which the actors use the stairs to great effect. The most arresting image is Jesus’ whipping, pantomimed to the sound of hands clapping, where Lurye moves the audience to tears with his tortured writhing. The crucifixion, by comparison, is conveyed via film footage. One element of the staging that does not work well, though, is the frequent mingling of T-shirted chorus members among the lead. It breaks the illusion of theater and is visually distracting.
Costumes vary from sackcloth to sequined robes and gladiator attire. All are appropriate with one grave exception: Jesus’ wig, reminiscent of a Marlo Thomas bouffant, creates an air of petulant prima donna that Lurye’s acting cannot overcome. Equally disappointing are the under-rehearsed orchestra and the sound system hiccups that caused communal cringing at several points on opening night. And the absence of a program is a conspicuous disappointment.
Still, this show is a crowd pleaser. There is plenty of substance to feed the masses, from believers to atheists and opera to rock buffs.