I walked into the 50th anniversary production of Jesus Christ Superstar unprepared. My background included two things: 1) a love of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work and 2) a very basic knowledge of Jesus from growing up in a Christian dominant country.
This was not enough for me to enjoy the show.
Jesus Christ Superstar takes place during the last week of Jesus’ life, told predominantly from the perspective of those around Jesus. The production assumes some level of knowledge of the cast and characters, of which I had none. I therefore spent the first half of the production completely confused, unable to discern the characters and their motivations. (I followed the second half better since it’s near impossible, even as a non-Christian, to not know how Jesus’ life comes to an end.)
Jesus Christ Superstar originated as a rock opera concept album, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice (Aladdin, The Lion King). The 50th Anniversary tour is more rock concert than musical; the absence of dialogue between songs didn’t do my confusion any favors and made the transitions between narratives clunky.
Andrew Lloyd Weber is a musical genius, yet the music of Jesus Christ Superstar is forgettable at best. While the opening riffs of the guitar had me excited for what was to come, that feeling was short lived as it was hard to understand the lyrics, made even more difficult by lyrics based on biblical passages I was unfamiliar with. I can’t even blame a personal disinterest in rock because I loved School of Rock.
I’ll compare Jesus Christ Superstar to another show I went into with no background knowledge: Hadestown. Yet I was listening to the Hadestown soundtrack for days following, mesmerized by the power of the singers and the power of the lyrics. As I write this review, I’m listening to the soundtrack of Phantom of the Opera, my favorite musical, and I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve seen Cats on DVD (the 1998 version). Jesus Christ Superstar’s music is lacking something in comparison to the magic of Webber’s more modern pieces, although there were stanzas that were reminiscent of songs in Phantom and Cats.
On a more positive note, the production value was high with an expansive, rock concert-lit set and massive ensemble. Like Hadestown, the band sat on stage as part of the set. Contributing to the rock concert feel were artistic decisions like having all singers use hand mics instead of the usual body mics more common in musicals.
This was one of the largest ensembles in a production I’ve seen in recent years and the dancers were all incredibly athletic. The ensemble played the masses well, depicting through dance and song their transition from Jesus’ followers to Jesus’ punishers, calling for his crucifixion. The choreography was primarily modern dance, and I particularly appreciated the choreography in the round, which created a sense of dynamism on the stage. But as the performance went on, I saw the same steps repeated in a way that felt like the choreographer’s limitation instead of a potentially metaphorical movement.
This is probably one of the lowest grades I’ve given to a show, and it’s because in the end I was disappointed. The world of theater goers today is more diverse, and the assumption that the audience is intimately familiar with the Bible likely leaves many potential audience members in the dark.
Final Grade: B-
The 50th Anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar comes to the Kennedy Center Opera House February 22–March 13, 2022. Tickets are on sale and may be purchased online at https://www.kennedy-center.org/, in-person at the Kennedy Center Box Office, or by calling (202) 467-4600.
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Kennedy Center’s COVID Safety Protocols
Proof of vaccination and a photo ID must be presented before entering the theater. Masks must be worn at all times while indoors. See the Kennedy Center’s full COVID Safety Plan for additional instructions.