Chicago Theatre Review
Heaven on Their Minds
Jesus Christ Superstar – Paramount Theatre
British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber teamed up with lyricist Tim Rice back in 1970 to create a rock opera concept album that turned into a runaway hit. This sung-through musical, with no spoken dialogue, soon became a fully-staged Broadway production. Debuting just one year later, it was soon adapted into a popular film in 1973. Although nominated for five Tony Awards, the musical didn’t win anything, but Webber earned a Drama Desk Award as “Most Promising Composer.”
The show is loosely based upon the later life of Jesus Christ in his last seven days on earth. It became a controversial piece of theatre with audiences and critics for several reasons. Purists couldn’t bear hearing the Lord’s story depicted through rock music. Jesus was portrayed as simply a man, although a tragic figure, who became a leader, a teacher and a friend to the poor and downtrodden. However, Christ’s self-importance is seen as arrogant, eventually becoming dangerous and out of hand. Christians hated the show because they saw the treatment of Jesus as blasphemous. They also felt that the portrayal of Judas was too compassionate and the character’s criticism of Jesus way too disrespectful. Other theatergoers complained that the musical was antisemitic since most of the villains who tortured and crucified Christ were seen as Jewish. Yet, despite these criticisms, the show has always remained very popular with a solid cult following. It’s been produced all over the world and has toured nationally and internationally, spawning additional regional, educational and professional productions and recordings.
Ron Kellum’s exciting, new production at Paramount Theatre sets the bar even higher. At a theatre who’s name is synonymous with professionalism and innovation, this is gorgeously sung, magnificently acted and technically superb version of the musical that could easily be transferred intact to Broadway. It’s eye-opening and gut-wrenching. Seldom has the power and majesty of this story felt so real. Never has Jesus’ anguish and agony seemed quite as palpable. This multitalented African-American cast not only brings a new earnest sensitivity and beauty to this piece, but the power of Rice’s lyrics and the richness of each character feels fresh and new. Mr. Kellum’s direction and choreography are bristling with energy and excitement. The emotional arc that he’s created travels across the footlights and out into the audience. It’s not an overstatement that most theatergoers had tears in their eyes by the final curtain, and they’ll never forget the impact of this Superstar.
The cast is unbeatable. Mykal Kilgore is jaw-dropping as Judas Iscariot. He’s an antihero who sparks moments of sympathy as he sees his friend Jesus grow too big for his toga. He doesn’t know how else to stop Him from His ambitious ways, other than by betrayal; and in this act we ache for what Judas has decided to do. Kilgore’s vocal range is so impressive that audiences will fall under his spell from the very beginning, starting with his catchy “Heaven on Their Minds,” and culminating in the spectacular 11th hour, “Superstar.”
Evan Tyrone Martin doesn’t model his Jesus Christ on the glorified Savior we find depicted in stained glass or tapestries. He’s a real, live, flesh-and-blood human being, filled with insurmountable fears, doubts and confusion. He’s also a man who loves his friends and followers even more than himself. While Judas has a range that soars to the balcony, Martin’s voice is more grounded. It’s a perfect contrast, giving Jesus a controlled yet less showy vocal style. He’s honest and authentic, even in his musicality. Martin’s one moment where he shines vocally is in his tour de force, “Gethsemane.” In that single aria we see, hear and feel all that Christ has endured and still foresees, as his final days on earth. Both of these actors are, indeed, Superstars.
Felicia Boswell brings her own powerhouse vocals to her portrayal of Mary Magdalene. The actress’ phrasing is freer and more organic than is often heard by other actresses in this role. However, in letting the words and thoughts of her musical monologues guide her, Ms. Bowell makes each song her very own. She soothes musically with “Everything’s Alright” and leaves it all on the stage with her “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” In a final plea to return to more innocent times, she shares “Could We Start Again, Please?” with Judas and a sweetly innocent Peter, nicely played by Gilbert Domally. But Ms. Boswell’s loveliest, most sincere moment, and a tribute to Ron Kellum’s expert staging, is as the lone figure who weeps for Jesus as he writhes upon the cross, eventually ascending to Heaven.
Each member of the supporting ensemble is stellar, as well. Rufus Bonds, Jr. is solid as Pontius Pilate, the dream-haunted Governor of Judea who makes us truly feel his torment in dealing with this rebel called Jesus. Chicago actor Lorenzo Rush, Jr. is awesome as head priest Caiaphas, with his deep, ominous voice and commanding presence. Avionce Hoyles does distinguished double duty, both as priest Annas and as a gender-ambiguous King Herrod, cloaked in a mini toga and sold gold platform boots. Mark J.P. Hood, another of Chicago’s exceptional talents, once again makes a lasting impression, here as Simon Zealotes. The other disciples, the guards, the remaining high priests and the crowd are all played by the large ensemble with passion and vitality. This magnificent chorus sing, dance and act as one impressive force that won’t soon be forgotten.
This is one impressive finale to a season that offered so many exciting, luminary performances. Ron Kellum’s dynamic, heartfelt production, accompanied by Tom Vendafreddo’s full, rich pit orchestra and co-musically directed by Vendafreddo and Kory Danielson, is a spectacle of light and shadow, fear and hope. Working its way all over the Paramount stage, among the deteriorating Roman columns of Kevin Depinet’s massive scenic design, projected with images by Mike Tutaj and lit with eerie moodiness by Greg Hofmann, this cast tells a never-to-be-forgotten story of a people and a time when Heaven was on their minds.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 19-May 28 by Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 630-896-6666 or by going to www.paramountaurora.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.