Theater review: Atlanta Lyric’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ cranks it up


From the opening chords of a blaring electric guitar to the closing rendition of its rollicking title tune, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a decidedly noisy “rock opera” based on the biblical story of Jesus. An early effort (circa 1970) by the phenomenally successful writing team of Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), consider it sort of like a head-banging flip side to the comparatively acoustical “Godspell” that also debuted around the same time.

Flashily directed for Atlanta Lyric Theatre by Alan Kilpatrick, the show is sung-through without a traditional script or dialogue. It depicts the last week of Jesus’ life by supposedly “stripping away the myth from the man” — notwithstanding the heightened “superstar” status it ultimately accords him. His “dangerous” message about Christianity sets the Roman Empire afire, and one of his followers sings about the widespread impact of their movement rather accurately: “We’re getting much too loud.”

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It’s one thing for the show to presume that a vast majority of the audience is already familiar with the story, and with the characters of the righteous Jesus (Haden Rider), the traitorous Judas Iscariot (Taylor Buice) or the prostitute Mary Magdalene (Adrianna Trachell). Nevertheless, at other times, it’s harder to appreciate some of the specific details.

Clothed in modern dress by costume designer Amanda Edgerton, wearing lots of Army fatigues and denim jackets, Jesus’ disciples are mostly anonymous and interchangeable, with a couple of exceptions (Daniel Burns as Peter, Orlando Carbajal Rebollar as Simon). And you might find yourself checking the song list in the program just to identify who that is singing in the dapper silver-lame suit and tie (it’s Matthew Morris as Pontius Pilate).

It’s another thing, however, for the production to assume that as many of us know the score equally well. Under the music direction of Amanda Wansa Morgan, its bigger numbers (featuring the highly exuberant choreography of Ricardo Aponte) pump up the volume to such a degree that it renders a lot of the lyrics unintelligible.

That isn’t necessarily any reflection on the finely tuned 11-member orchestra or the strong ensemble of vocalists, primarily spotlighting Buice’s Judas (and including a comedic cameo by Googie Uterhardt, in Prince drag as King Herod). Still, the more emotionally valid musical moments are the less overblown ones: Trachell’s lovely solo (“I Don’t Know How to Love Him”) and her duet with Burns (“Could We Start Again, Please”), among others.

With his teen-heartthrob good looks and innate charisma, Rider, who stood out in the supporting cast of the Lyric’s “The Full Monty” last season (also directed by Kilpatrick), makes the most of his showcase in the title role. He truly excels when allowed to sing in his natural voice, but certain songs require him to fluctuate between adopting an affected boy-band falsetto and something akin to heavy-metal screeching.

Lee Shiver-Cerone’s ominous set design and Mary Parker’s elaborate lighting are frequently striking assets. Overall, though, this “Superstar” would have benefited from being toned down — quite a few notches.



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