I first saw “Jesus Christ Superstar” in an old Minneapolis church — a venue that was small, hot and packed. The production was bare-bones but had a phenomenal ability to fill the house with theatrical and religious types curious to see how Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had skewered their sacred cows.
That burlap-sack performance came to mind Thursday as Ordway Center opened James Rocco’s glittering new production of “Superstar.” Neon lights, wide platforms, awe-inspiring backdrops, catwalks, gigantic sound, virtuosic singers and crack choreography are now the coin of the realm. The raw energy of Lloyd Webber’s rock opera has been planed into a sleek dynamo — albeit with a few balky transitions evident on opening night.
Rocco’s staging takes seriously that this piece was intended as a rock opera. Lauren Villegas’ Mary Magdalene turns up her operatic power on “Everything’s Alright,” which has always seemed happiest as a soothing lullaby. Here, it’s a powerful anthem.
Jesse Nager’s Jesus and Randy Schmeling’s Judas trade vocal licks like a couple of rockers trying to outdo each other in a roadhouse concert. Dieter Bierbrauer delivers a big performance as Pilate. Erin Schwab feasts on the vaudevillian delights of “King Herod’s Song” — a number that always has seemed like a chiffon pie in the middle of a pot roast dinner.
Nager, a New York import, reaches the highest registers with ease and has enough power that he nearly stopped the show with an amazing “Gethsemane.” Schmeling’s Judas nearly matches him. Other notables in music director Andrew Bourgoin’s stable are James Ramlet and John Brink as the high priests and Terance Reddick as Simon Zealotes.
Rocco hoofed in the chorus in his early days, and his penchant for choreography puts a slick, big-show patina on his production, which, if you haven’t paid attention to this point, looks and sounds great.
For all the fizz and energy in this staging, though, I miss the heart and soul of the story. The production overwhelms, rather than insinuating itself into our being. Nager’s terrific vocals can’t mask a lack of charisma. Jesus and Judas have such a bad relationship that the question isn’t “Why did Judas betray Jesus?” but “Why didn’t he betray him sooner?” These guys hate each other.
And that’s too bad because one of the signal accomplishments of “Superstar” was creating the sympathetic antihero in Judas (the “Hamilton” Aaron Burr of his musical theater generation). The relationship had dimension and nuance in the simmering psychological imbalance between a man who wanted power and another to whom power naturally gravitated. That’s what I noticed, sitting in that sweaty balcony and watching that early performance.
But like many of the hippie-inspired Jesus freaks of that time, “Jesus Christ Superstar” has become slick and corporate. Oh, the times they are — I forget the rest.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.