'Jesus Christ Superstar' review: Take me to church
Courtesy of Broadway in Detroit
50 years removed from its Broadway premiere, Andrew Llyod Webber and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” is staying relevant. Making a pit stop at The Fisher Theatre in Detroit, the latest tour is a clinic in how to masterfully display the energetic prowess of a company firing on all cylinders and the allure of sensational music and lyrics that haven’t aged a day. “Superstar” is defined as a “Rock-Opera,” after all, but as a first time flier of the show (I had seen pieces of the John Legend live telecast and heard snippets of the songs through the years) there’s a magic embedded in the production where, religious or not, there's something everyone can latch onto. Nothing beats the live experience.
Obviously, the show is set against the final weeks of Jesus Christs’ life and unspooled through the lens of Judas, who felt betrayed by some of His teachings, and concludes with an unforgettable crucifixion sequence that should leave audiences a little unsettled. As Jesus, singer/musician Jack Hopewell brings the house down, throwing every fiber optic of his soul into the character. The actor does everything from handy guitar work, belting to the heavens (forgive the pun), to finding a smooth rhythm that masterfully bridges the gap between massive ballads and somber solos. He’s miraculous and as someone who never saw the show, Hopewell was the best case scenario.
Likewise for Elvie Ellis’s Judas and Faith Jones’ Mary, not to mention the rest of the ensemble who make up everyone from apostles, Priests, soul singers, and villainous members of the Roman Empire. Webber and Rice didn’t make the task easy for them. Yes, this production runs an intermission-less 90-minutes, but the movements, musical interludes, vocal dexterity combined with Rice’s lyrics and Webber’s intuition makes sure the ensemble is always on their toes. I couldn't imagine performing this eight times a week.
Delivering on iconic songs: “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Superstar” and “Gethsemane” is no small task either, yet this company welcomes the challenge. It helps the show is peppered with seamless transitions and prestine staging, allowing the actors to turn the Fisher stage into an intimate playground that can easily be manipulated towards their will.
Additionally, while some actors are individually mic’d up, most rely on a singular microphone as if it were a never ending rap battle. Which, in essence, it kinda is. The passing of the metaphorical baton creates a palpable tension as we await the next round of gobsmacking vocals to shatter whatever expectations we had.
Webber’s catalog of shows can be hit-or-miss and it’s easy to see how “Jesus Christ Superstar” gets pegged as his signature achievement. For one, it can be reworked and retooled in a manner fitting of the era in which it is produced. This tour, for example, brings some real world components (ditching the period elements of past versions) into the mix, giving the endgame considerably more stakes and the climax hits harder. It allows for more invention and creative freedom like how director Timothy Sheader comes up with the idea of using glitter as a visual motif for Jesus’ lashings at the hand of Pilate (played with blunt force by Nicholas Hamburch).
Minor tweaks in that vein, not to mention Tom Scutt's scenic blueprint (he also did hair and costume design), help make this iteration of “Jesus Christ Superstar” fit within 2023’s progressive mold. Controversial elements remain (Jesus is white and Judas is black), but the show doesn’t focus on those ideals so much as the narrative is what’s driving engagement. Coming into “Jesus Christ Superstar” with what little knowledge I had could not prepare me for the utter beauty and tranquility of the show’s language and endearing message.
50 years later, it still rocks.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR: The 50th Anniversary Tour is now playing at The Fisher Theatre in Detroit through March 5th. Tickets can be purchased via Ticketmaster.