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50th anniversary JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Shea’s is different. Mary, Caiphas, and orchestra are super.

THE BASICS: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, the North American 50th anniversary touring production of the 1970 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, presented by Shea’s and Albert Nocciolino opened on Tuesday, February 11 with the standard 8-show run through February 16, remaining shows are Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 2 and 7 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main Street (1-800-745-3000). www.sheas.org Runtime: 95 minutes without intermission

Aaron LaVigne and the company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: With a vibrant and varied “rock-inspired” score, the musical recounts the last days of Jesus Christ, providing clear motivation to two characters whom history has minimized – Judas the disciple and Mary Magdalene, the consort of Jesus. As all the disciples of Jesus wring their hands and don’t quite “get” what Jesus is about, the power structure is moving to be rid of this pesky minor prophet who seems to have the power to stir rebellion among the masses. Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest sends Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea. But Pilate, not wanting to create a martyr, refers this case to a “lower court,” that of Herod Antipas, who was actually looking forward to meeting Jesus and seeing a miracle or two. But, in the end, as only the Roman Empire can enforce a death sentence, so the whole affair is kicked back up to Pilate, who resorts to one of the empire’s favorite torture/execution methods – crucifixion.

James Delisco Beeks, Aaron LaVigne, Jenna Rubaii and the company of the North American Tour of JCS | Photo by Matthew Murphy

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: What I liked:

  • The 11-person band which completely “owned” a late-60s sound with exciting guitar and sax work, and what sounded like a Hammond B-3 organ, but, assuming it wasn’t, was the best-sampled keyboard imitation I’ve ever heard.
  • Jenna Rubaii who sings the role of Mary Magdalene (“Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”) with a headliner quality pop/country voice, a refreshing change from the unending string of Idina Menzel imitators. I love Ms. Menzel, and maybe that’s how you have to sound to get most gigs today, but Ms. Rubaii was paying attention to Dr. Suess: “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” To be sure, since the Easter 2018 NBC live broadcast of JCS, Sarah Bareilles is now my “gold standard” but Rubaii’s vocal interpretation was satisfying.
  • Alvin Crawford, a big guy with a big basso profundo who sings the role of Caiaphas, and whose first few notes caused quite a ripple of appreciation throughout the theater.
  • The theater, as in Shea’s Performing Arts Center. Shea’s previous president, Tony Conte, once told me in an interview that it’s not the purpose of Shea’s to put on musicals. It’s the purpose of the musicals to provide revenues to be applied to the restoration of the building. You don’t have to wait for HAMILTON (returning, by the way, next season) to “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” gazing at those mirrors and friezes and chandeliers. It’s one gorgeous building. The seating could be upgraded. But it does look good.
  • The set, constructed of large industrial beams, which, when lit one way looked like crosses, and when lit another, seemed like catacombs. The orchestra was displayed, although in shadow, across the entire “second story.”

 

And here’s what I didn’t like:

  • Aaron LaVigne as Jesus who didn’t have a big enough voice. After hearing Ted Neely live and watching John Legend on NBC two years ago I expected more. And, not his fault, the Hair Designer Tom Scutt had him in a man bun for most of the show. Yuck. And, also not his fault, the director Timothy Sheader had him picking up and putting down, picking up and putting down his guitar and, when he finally did strum it, there were other, better guitarists on stage who could have handled that. And all this running left and right, upstage and down. Why?
  • And, if the guitar was a strange prop, I was mystified by all of the extra work to provide singers with handheld mics, when, as far as I could see, everyone was wearing a head mic.
  • James Delisco Beeks as Judas also seemed to be suffering in the vocal department. Obviously, a performer used to a big stage, perhaps he had a cold, but his voice ended in a rasp on many lyrics, and he seemed behind the orchestra by a fraction of a beat over and over. That’s not just a personal peeve; it seemed to bother others around me too.
  • The Hip-hop inspired dancing seemed like a wanna-be J-Lo/Shakira Superbowl half-time show. Now, I’ll admit, during the Superbowl, the dance numbers were way too short with an over-emphasis on variety. But here at Shea’s, the opposite was true. The dance sequences went on and on with dancers hitting their marks as they were instructed to, but not quite “selling it.” And having Mary imitate J-Lo’s pole dance absolutely didn’t work. Here it seemed as if JC was running an executive training program for his apostles and had come up with a “trust exercise.”

But, hey, at the end of the day, it’s still a great musical, with a wide variety of musical genres and visuals that grab your attention.

UP NEXT: The next four “Broadway” (8 performance) shows on the main stage are HELLO DOLLY March 10-15, THE BAND’S VISIT April 14-19, ANASTASIA May 5-10 and ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE June 2-7.

Lead image: Alvin Crawford, Tyce Green and the company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Photo by Matthew Murphy

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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