CEDAR RAPIDS — “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a magnificent achievement and a triumphant way for Theatre Cedar Rapids to launch its 80th season celebration.
I was in the show when TCR first mounted Andrew Lloyd Webber’s groundbreaking rock opera 27 years ago, and I’ve seen several national tours starring Ted Neeley, who played the title role in the controversial 1973 film adaptation. I know this show inside out.
TCR revisits, revives and elevates to new heights this retelling of Jesus’ final days on Earth. The show opened to a full house Friday night (10/11/13) and continues through Nov. 2. I expect the remaining tickets to sell quickly, so don’t delay. Just go.
Directors Leslie Charipar and Janelle Lauer deserve a standing ovation right from the beginning for creating an opening scene so dramatic, so imaginative, where the high priests act as puppetmasters manipulating the masses.
Costume designers Joni Sackett and Marnie Marshall also have their finest hour, dressing the priests in menacing black robes with glittering adornments and everyone else in a cross between post-grunge and post-apocalypse.
Bret Gothe’s scenery design gives your eyes something interesting to discover in every corner as Derek Easton’s dark and shadowy lighting design plays over the various levels, ramps, doorways, camo netting and sand.
This is one of the most cohesive, high-level designs I’ve seen at TCR in a long time. Everything works in perfect sync to support the massive talent unfolding onstage, from the ideal balance of orchestra and voices to Aaron Canterbury’s choreography that shifts from joyous and campy to edgy and cutting.
Aaron Brewer, who first wowed audiences in “Rent,” is a charismatic, transcendent Jesus, shedding his ethereal serenity for very human frustration and anger. He rocks the extremely difficult role, reveling in the hosannas, writhing through Gethsemane and later, an utterly devastating crucifixion.
Ben LaFayette oozes anger and disgust as the turncoat apostle Judas. Treashana Baker is soothing and loving as Mary Magdalene, trying to calm her Lord in the midst of his greatest strife. The most brilliant choice was having her sing the signature “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” a cappella, giving it an entirely new, haunting quality. And when the chorus chimes in with glorious tight harmonies, this moment becomes the emotional apex of mystified adoration.
Jon Day makes an imposing, fearsome Pilate who is trying to figure out what to do with Jesus, now that the people who exalted his entrance into Jerusalem are screaming for his execution. He circles his prey, swooping down upon the suddenly reviled King of the Jews.
Eric Johnson provides the comic relief as a show-stopping Herod, putting his show choir experience to good use tap dancing in the sand and vamping as a vinyl-clad queen of the desert. A male minion in short shorts shields him from the searing sun while Herod’s harem prances in vaudeville-gaudy, eye-popping black and white stripes with Betty Boop pops of red.
The laughter ends as the show spirals to the inevitable conclusion. Brewer delivers the most shattering death I’ve seen in live theater as the audience sits in utter silence, absorbing the power of the moment.
It’s completely appropriate that we hear no jaunty exit music, just silence from the stage punctuated by wild applause and cheers from patrons propelled to their feet.
- “Jesus Christ Superstar”
- Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
- When: Through Nov. 2; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
- Tickets: $20 to $35, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org