Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Photo: The cast of Jesus Christ Superstar | Todd Rosenberg
By Sheri Flanders
Most theaters would balk at the idea of dumping 90 lbs of gold confetti across the stage for every show, but the Lyric Opera is not most theaters.
Written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber and originally brought to stage in the 1970’s, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTARwas an edgy addition to the newly growing Rock Opera genre, alongside productions like HAIR and TOMMY. However, in this modern era, a concept that was once considered edgy and near blasphemous now has a whiff of family-friendly nostalgia about it. Fortunately, the Lyric’s staging creates a divine extravaganza for the senses, fit for a god.
Set against an imposing edifice of iron girders, SUPERSTAR tells the story of the last days of Jesus’s life, leading up to his crucifixion. A rock band wails and shreds, from on high; an extremely diverse ensemble of 39 dancers writhe and stomp en masse across the stage in grey robes as the devout followers of a young new religious leader.
Heath Saunders is compelling as a kindly yet determined Jesus, leading his flock towards Jerusalem. Saunders possesses a superlative voice that easily toggles between a classically trained sound and the piercing falsetto shriek of a metal-band frontman that brings down the house as he holds the entire audience in the cavernous opera-house enraptured, surrounded by plumes of smoke and piercing lights in his show-stopping solo “Gethsemane.”
Ryan Shaw plays a dazzling and dynamic Judas Iscariot, bringing compassion and depth to a complicated role, along with breathtaking vocals. Jo Lampert plays a gentle and sweet Mary Magdalene, providing a peaceful respite for the troubled leader and a powerful rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
The production is smartly staged and dazzling with props such as glowing crosses, and outrageous spectacles of costumes such as a 28 ft long shimmering gold cape adorning King Herod, played by a delightfully sinister and ridiculous Shaun Fleming. Director Timothy Sheader makes subtly sophisticated choices in the portrayal of familiar iconography such as the 40 pieces of silver, and tastefully symbolizes events during a dark yet pivotal scene involving Judas.
Tragedy is a cornerstone of opera and SUPERSTAR delivers. The climax of the play is an extended, grisly, near-pornographic torture, dance and glitter extravaganza. It is literally impossible to create a palatable realistic depiction of human suffering, complete with blood and piteous wailing, yet the Lyric certainly does try. The dissonance created between the cracklingly jubilant title song and full-cast finale of dancers, alongside the wretched shrieks of Jesus slowly suffering and dying on the cross creates a feeling of queasy disquiet, which I suppose is the point of it all.
As the crowd erupted into thunderous applause, I glanced over at the child sitting next to me and wondered what his impression was. When I glanced back a few seconds later, he was gone, rushing out behind his parents to beat the crowd.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Lyric Opera through May 20th.