Jack Hopewell and Elvie Ellis in the North American Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.
Jesus Christ Superstar is my Hamilton. Not speaking in terms of content, but in the sense that it’s a musical (technically a rock opera) that I listen to like any other album, as I understand others do with Hamilton. I have played out the original motion picture soundtrack on both vinyl and cassette. I have watched the Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson film version so many times I fancy myself an understudy, at least for an apostle. I’ve even attended the glorious Jesus Christ Superstar Shadow Puppet Spectacular sing-a-long, organized by our own local superfan Celia every Easter. Color me stoked to see the 50th anniversary tour landing at The Fabulous Fox Theatre.
Over those 50 years, there have been many interpretations of this somewhat controversial Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice creation depicting the final days and inner struggle of Jesus before his crucifixion, including international productions and even a hilariously spot-on Mr. Show spoof called “Jeepers Creepers Semi-Star.” The version currently showing at the Fox is absolutely worth seeing, even for the most seasoned veteran, for a couple of key reasons: the incorporation of live instruments onstage, the simple and fixed scenery is used to great effect, and Elvie Ellis is a dead ringer for the heart wrenchingly conflicted Judas. That second feature means that seats near the stage or a pair of binoculars or opera glasses are critical to appreciate some of the more delicate details of that third feature, but your rapt attention will be rewarded with some touching, and chilling, interaction between Jesus and Judas.
This production thrills in subtle ways, beginning with the opening guitar chords calling out from the second floor of an onstage structure, where the guitar and bass remained throughout the show, with drums situated on the floor below. To have live musicians visibly onstage—occupying roughly one-third of the real estate, similar to the recent production of Hadestown—was a logical and appreciated investment, since Jesus Christ Superstar began as a musical recording and became a stage production a few years later.
At the guitar’s cue, a din was raised from behind and around, chanting “What’s the buzz?/ Tell me what’s happening.” The ensemble scrambled up the aisles and onto the stage in tennis shoes and drapey, flowing fabrics in muted colors, this time more befitting a modern dance studio than a desert. Their movements ebbed and flowed with dramatic hand gestures as Jesus, played by Jack Hopewell, appeared with an acoustic guitar slung across his back. As I mentioned, for me and for many, the Jesus bar has been set by Ted Neeley, who plays his role with such a broad range of emotions that he is equal parts frustrated and gentle with his followers. He alone sees the writing on the wall, and he’s torn between being integral and alone. “Why should you want to know?/ Why are you obsessed with fighting?/ Times and fates you can’t defy?” he fires at the crowd with a scowl. While pitch perfect, this Jesus opened with a meek reprimand, lacking any fire real fire in this parry with the ensemble.
In fact, my one key disappointment in this production was the tepid emotion coming from two of the three primary characters. Mary Magdalene, played by Faith Jones, was appropriately cool and collected as she sauntered out in white, offering to cool down Jesus’ face a bit. But her temperature varied little throughout the show, perhaps raising a degree or two later during her solo, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” but never anything approaching the anguish driving her character. Perhaps Yvonne Elliman overacted the role a bit in the film, but the tears in her voice were far more convincing than Jones’ even-keeled performance.
Overall, the feelings between Jesus and Mary seemed matronly, at best, and even then, fairly detached. Nothing about their interactions raised questions as to the nature of their relationship, which is fundamental to Judas’ criticism of their interactions. For his part, Jesus started out with nearly flat affect, a moody, brooding loner rather than the emotionally invested buddy to all who fights the painful knowledge of their betrayal to come. Hopewell eventually warmed up to shine later in the performance, when he hit all the impossibly high notes, even besting the original on a few occasions. But anything in the lower range prioritized accuracy over power, as in the disagreement with Judas over Mary’s role in the grand scheme: when Judas makes a stinging allusion to her profession as a sex worker—“Yes, I can understand that she amuses…”—I expect Jesus to spit back with equal burn “If your slate is clean then you can throw stones/ If your slate is not then leave her alone.” But Hopewell’s Jesus came to a weak defense, reciting the words with little meaning behind them. Judas, on the other hand, dressed in the darkest garb of the ensemble, played his vocals so hard that his voice seemed to break on more than a few occasions. Was this accidental? They are reaching the end of their tour, and if he’s been giving his performance this much for the entire tour, it’s a wonder he hasn’t blown anything out yet. Was this intentional, for effect? I don’t know, but I would take his heartfelt delivery, cracks and all, over the cold precision of the rest of their trio any day.
Another distinction in the look and feel of this production came with the arrival of the Pharisees and priests, arranged atop a cross laid across the floor in the middle of the stage. They wore no grandiose mitres on their heads. They also wore no shirts under their jackets, instead baring their chests with a version of the 12 Tribes of Israel pendant hanging above voluminous, high-waisted pants. The tall, golden rods they carried, and periodically stroked in a sensual fashion, doubled as microphone stands when flipped on end. Annas, played by Kodiak Thompson, was a perfectly shrill counterpart to Caiaphas, played by Grant Hodges, who struggled a bit to reach a low enough bass but played his role with impeccably cold and callous delivery. Altogether, the priests were appropriately ominous and ushered in the doom and paranoia each time they approached as the arbiters of groupthink.
Throughout the production, the use of microphones cleverly conveyed the struggles for power that are central to this story. Just as the priests alternated between authoritative rod and microphone in an orchestrated fashion, the three central characters at times struggled for possession of the microphone and control of the narrative. Mary would produce an extra mic for Jesus while Judas would grab it from his hands. Later, Pilate would drag a mic stand onto the stage, as it was clearly his uncontested and uninterrupted turn to command the story. But the ever-weakening Jesus continually failed to maintain control over the microphone or the narrative, as was his fate.
In keeping with the minimalist costumes, an oversized, pale mask worn by various ensemble members was the primary indication of Rome’s all-seeing eye, cautiously monitoring from the rafter the evolution of Jesus and his followers. As Simon made his fevered pitch that Jesus step up to claim his seat as ruler of the land, the Zealots danced in a frenzied manner, borrowing a few moves from the ecstatic film choreography. This is one of the liveliest moments in the story, one of my favorite scenes in the movie, and Brett Hennessey Jones delivered the fervor and energy needed to convince us all that he is insanely excited about Jesus the savior, foreshadowing the impending, equally impassioned disappointment of the zealots and the mob.
The first hints of Hopewell’s capacity for emotion peeked through in his fury at the temple. In contrast with the neutral tones and natural fabrics onstage up to this point, the dimly-lit set was aglow with Jesus trinkets in the form of flashing light-up crosses, being waved about by peddlers, bargainers, and gamblers adorned with the first sparkles and shimmers to grace the stage. Hopewell shrieked his fury at the defilement of the temple in a rage so piercing it was scarcely within human hearing range, eliciting gasps from the audience. Ellis matched this energy with his dynamic rendition of “Damned for All Time,” as the priests glowered down upon him from behind the chest of silver pieces made to tempt Judas into snitching. He squealed in defense of his own motives in a moment that begs for attention to every movement of eyes, darting side to side, tormented with guilt and self-doubt as he provided the (fated) hot tip that damns him for all time.
As the Last Supper assembled along the cross laid across the stage, Hopewell finally transitioned from impassive observer of his life to a dejected outsider of his own movement. He initially begged the apostles to remember him with a dearth of love or anger in voice, but Judas finally got to him, and “Gethsemane” was a wellspring of hurt. Once the apostles gorged themselves to sleep, Hopewell had the stage, spotlight, and mic to himself. He sank on his knees and pleaded with the eye in the sky with a furious, piercing pain exceeding expectations. The final exchange between Judas and the living Jesus was almost too tender and agonizing to watch, another moment to pay careful attention to their anguished expressions. As the Romans assembled and his party drowsily awoke, we said goodbye to the coolly groomed Jesus, who is gradually unraveled and dehumanized for the remainder of the show.
Pilate cut a striking silhouette walking the downed cross on stage as he considered Jesus’ fate in his leather jacket, combat boots, and slicked black hair over a sharp undercut. Wrapping the mic cord around his hand like a proper rock star, there’s never any question or contest as to who is in earthly authority here. He sends Jesus to Herod, the official technically in charge of ruling over the Jesus case, and the infamous “Herod’s Song” proceeds like a cabaret number, with Herod, played by Erich W. Schleck, in a pleated, gold lamé cape and stack-heeled boots, high-kicking amongst his circus of dancers. Unimpressed with his refusal to perform parlor tricks, Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate, the only official in the land with the power to sentence Jesus to death. And Judas makes his final appearance in mortal form, ending his tormented existence by silencing his voice in a discreet but impactful gesture.
Here, Nicholas Hambruch embraces the powerful role of Pilate. He spits his disappointment and frustration, drawing physically and vocally from the gut, striking all the right angles in the spotlight as a commanding ruler should. Jesus is brought back a stumbling, unrecognizable shambles of a man, his man-bun disheveled, his eyeliner smeared, his shirtless body covered in blood and grime. He receives his 39 lashes from the leader of the mob, with the snap of firecrackers and a trail of the same glitter we saw earlier in the temple scene, his fame and glory now turned against him.
Judas returns a cleaner-cut, more commanding version of his former self. His hair is pulled back to reveal his clear and calm eyes, and his voice is strong and powerful as Jesus is being affixed to the cross, the executioner raising a drill gun high above his head. If the lead up to this moment was somber, this scene in particular was beautifully staged, emotively performed and, consequently, awkward to applaud. After a brief silence from the audience and a final silence from Jesus, the cross laying across the stage, which had previously been used as something akin to a catwalk, was illuminated to indicate Jesus’ transition from mortal to spiritual plane.
I hope the cast understands the difficulty of summoning raucous applause after the emotionally draining experience the audience has witnessed, made all the more agonizing due to their effective performance. I’m usually a screamer and a “woo-hoo”-er and at times an obnoxiously loud cheering section, but this just didn’t feel like a woo-hoo moment. It was more of a wow and shake-my-damn-head reaction, not for lack of appreciation, but because they really brought us along on that painful journey. With plenty of nods to the classic film and recording, including some lively choreography and plenty of groovy guitars and keys, this vision of Jesus Christ Superstar feels fresh and familiar at the same time. The music is front and center with plenty of new touches in the visual elements to pique a hardcore fan’s interest in how they’ll do it, with the occasional reference back to the standard by which all productions are judged. Most importantly, the dilemmas faced by Judas and Jesus feel real and present, and the relationship between them goes so deep that the cuts all have salt poured in them. | Courtney Dowdall
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit fabulousfox.com/events/detail/jesus-christ-superstar