By Kimberly Rau
Jesus Christ Superstar returns to PPAC this week on a modernized, reimagined tour commemorating the musical’s upcoming 50th anniversary, and it’s beautifully over the top in every sense of the word.
The well-known Christian Easter story of death and resurrection is thrown in a new light. Instead of people out to silence Christ out of hatred or a prescient type of martyrdom/pre-Christian persecution, we see people acting out of fear and self-preservation. Judas is afraid that the Roman government will feel threatened by Jesus and take it out on the Jews; the Pharisees are afraid of a message that contradicts their own and highlights their hypocrisy; Pilate sees no reason to have Jesus crucified but a wail from the crowd that Caesar will have retribution for anything less forces him to wash his hands of the situation. Even the hedonistic King Herod is spooked by this crowd-appointed king who refuses to stand up for himself or account for his actions.
Despite the title, this is Judas Iscariot’s show, starting with his hesitancy over the zealousness of Jesus’ followers and leading the audience on a backstage tour of Christ’s last week, culminating in Judas’ suicide and Christ’s crucifixion. And Pepe Nufrio as Judas is more than up to this challenge, with rock star vocals and supreme movement and acting skills. His anger and frustration at what Jesus’ message has become is palpable, his later regret is even more visceral.
Nufrio is a perfect match for Aaron LaVigne’s Jesus, who looks more modern-day hipster than your typical robes-and-sandals messenger from God. Though LaVigne is often pitted against a louder-than-life ensemble, a cult of personality that surrounds him and literally drowns him out at times (which seems like the point). He meets every one of these challenges with ease. However, the rare moments when LaVigne is alone show us exactly what kind of incredible talent we’re dealing with. “Gethsemane” has never sounded so vulnerable and so powerful.
Other performances of note include Jenna Rubaii Mary Magdalene, who is less a fallen woman in this version and more of an outsider for her quiet support of Jesus. She serves as an emotional touchstone for Christ, gently grounding him (go to sleep, the world will still be here tomorrow) and professing her love for him only while alone. Her voice is beautiful and she pairs well with LaVigne and Nufrio. Alvin Crawford is a wonderful Caiphas; Tyce Green plays his lackey Annas with both obsequiousness with a dangerous undercurrent of sadism. Eric A. Lewis is wonderful as Simon. Tommy Sherlock’s acting skills and vocal talent make the most of the wishy-washy Pilate, who can’t seem to take a stand no matter the stakes. And throughout all this, the ensemble crowds in, dancing, worshipping, showing off and eventually turning on their Messiah.
The staging (designed Tom Scutt, who also did the costumes) is bare-bones. The lighting (Lee Curran) is magnificent. The modernization of costumes, as well as the running theme of fame as the thing that raises you up but brings you down twice as fast, are perfectly executed. The orchestra is on stage for the entire show, which runs 90 minutes with no intermission, and the bass is turned way up. It’s not often that a sound designer is mentioned in a review, but Keith Caggiano and Nick Lidster deserve one. Their work, along with the rest of the creative team’s, makes the show an experience that envelopes all your senses and offers you no respite until the end, toeing the line of “powerful but not overwhelming.” The flagellation scene, which is performed metaphorically (there is no whip in sight), is more powerful for the lack of graphic violence. The moment where Judas turns Jesus in for 30 pieces of silver is stunning, another moment of strong subtext that runs through the show like a current. The ending is a quiet but powerful message of forgiveness.
Director Timothy Sheader and choreographer Dew McOnie have delivered a hit. Fans of the show will love this new take on a classic rock musical, and newcomers will likely leave with a new Andrew Lloyd Webber favorite. Either way, make time for this one. You won’t be disappointed.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through Sunday, Jan. 30 at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at ppacri.org or by calling 401.421.2787. Masks required; patrons age 12 and older must provide proof of full vaccination and photo ID, or a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of the performance.