By Claudia Carbone
Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock opera that shook up Broadway in its 1971 debut, currently is rocking the Arvada Center in a nearly flawless production. Director Rod Lansberry and his team meticulously researched the year 33 A.D for a realistic staging of the final days of Christ’s life. Add the cacophony of the 70s synthesizer-heavy rock music of a young (21) Andrew Lloyd Webber and punchy pop lyrics by 25-year-old Tim Rice, and it’s another spectacular hit musical for the Arvada Center. As an opera, there are no spoken words, only singing.
While the story is well known, the part of the Judas is emphasized more in this play than in the Bible version. AC veteran Matt LaFontaine is outstanding in the challenging role, capturing all the angst and psyche of the conflicted apostle who warns Jesus that things have gone sour. He betrays Him to the high priest Caiaphus, capably channeled by Stephen Day’s big bass voice in “This Jesus Must Die.”
Mary Magdalene also has an expanded role. Phamaly star Jenna Bainbridge beautifully captures the character with a real-life limp and her lilting voice comforting Jesus with “Everything’s Alright” and wondering “what’s it all about” in the haunting ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
In his AC debut, New York City-based Billy Lewis, Jr. is a simpatico Jesus in looks and demeanor, even if his long locks are perfectly coiffed. JC reveals His humanity when He comes unglued in The Temple and shows fear and despair in the Garden of Gethsemane.” He prays, “I was inspired; now I’m sad and tired” and asks God to “take me now “before I change my mind.” Lewis delivers Jesus with conviction and passion, eliciting emotion without sentimentality.
The musical star of the show is the strong chorus whose perfectly blended voices arouse feelings with songs like “What’s the Buzz,” “Hosanna,” and the big finale “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The entire soundtrack was released as a concept album in 1970, paving the way for the stage production a year later. The title song and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” became immediate hit singles.
A highlight is local veteran actor Wayne Kennedy as Herod. His vaudevillian soft-shoe number with the ensemble in “King Herod’s Song” is terrific and adds a comedic touch to the drama. Another funny line is Jesus asking His apostles, “Why are you you obsessed with fighting? Stick to fishing from now on.”
Joe Callahan is fine as Annas, and Markus Warren understands the role Pontius Pilate played in The Passion and plays it accordingly.
Brian Mallgrave’s rotating set design realistically represents the mountains, rocks and sand of the Judaean Desert. Shannon McKinney’s lighting is a spectacular enhancement of the scenes, especially at the end when the only light is the white light on Jesus’s face on the cross.
This production is a moving portrayal of The Passion of Christ. No matter what your religion, you will be touched.
A note about The Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities: The 526-seat Main Stage Theatre is one of three theaters in the multidisciplinary facility that include art galleries, children’s theatre, camps and classes. There’s not a bad seat in The Main Stage Theatre with its steep incline, and patrons are allowed to bring beverages to their seats.
The Arvada Center is at 6901 Wadsworth Blvd. Parking is free. Jesus Christ Superstar runs through April 16. For more information and tickets, call 720-898-7200 or visit arvadacenter.org.
Claudia Carbone is an award-winning journalist based in Denver. She covers performing arts, travel and restaurants for a variety of magazines and websites. Follow her travel blog Sleepin’ Around on GoWorldTravel.com.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Arvada Center through April 16, Easter Sunday