50 Years Later, 'Jesus Christ Superstar' Has an Awkward Resurrection

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Aaron LaVigne, Jenna Rubaii and the company of the North American Tour of 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' running at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco.
Aaron LaVigne, Jenna Rubaii and the company of the North American Tour of 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' running at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. (Matthew Murphy)

We live in Anniversary Hell. Our cultural calendar revolves around the 30th anniversary of this album, the 10th anniversary of that movie, the 17th anniversary of this episode of this one show on this one network, all while new and relevant art continues to be made, and not given prominence, all over the city, constantly, every single day.

And so it was that I attended opening night at the Golden Gate Theater of the 50th anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar on Wednesday, with one pointed question: What business does Jumpin’ Jesus Friggin’ Christ on a Pogo Stick Superstar have clogging up theaters in the year 2021?

I kept an open mind. I happen to like Jesus Christ Superstar, which launched Andrew Lloyd Webber’s career, and which reframes with period rock music the final stages of the life of Jesus, up to his crucifixion. It’s a musical with still-relevant themes: the cult of personality, the building up and knocking down of celebrity, the Madonna/whore complex, self-aggrandizing mob mentalities. Four years of Trump, alone, opens the door wide to a modern interpretation, a parable for our time.

Eric A. Lewis and the company of the North American Tour of 'Jesus Christ Superstar.'
Eric A. Lewis and the company of the North American Tour of 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' (Matthew Murphy)

Instead, this resurrected Jesus Christ Superstar simply updates the original, superficially. Jesus wears tight jeans, white sneakers and a man bun; Herod is a drag queen in heels, long eyelashes and a black-and-gold bodysuit; Jesus’ followers do TikTok body rolls in Joann Fabrics castoffs instead of Grateful Dead twirly dances. All of it has a very dance-for-grandma vibe: young, talented actors made to re-create the glory days of baby boomers for their personal edification, and a comforting illusion that what they once liked can still be cool.

Will this approach help Jesus Christ Superstar reach a new audience? I asked a 20-something afterward what they thought, and got a gamely, one-word “interesting.” As for satisfying older fans, a 60-something man, who’d loved the original production, fretted to me in the aisle afterward: “They got a lot of things wrong.”

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Start with Jesus (Aaron LaVigne), who spends most of the show’s first half aloof, observing from the sidelines. We are supposed to believe that a crowd of followers is in love with the guy, but he has the opposite of personality or magnetism. Maybe this is intentional? A warning that the God complex in white dudes can manifest in even the most boring alt-bro Burning Man stereotype? Either way, he is a walking Reductress headline. You are glad when he dies.

The Last Supper, as part of the North American Tour of 'Jesus Christ Superstar.'
The Last Supper, as part of the North American Tour of 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' (Matthew Murphy)

Judas (James T. Justis), the great betrayer, brings the most pathos to the show; you believe his inner torment over selling out Jesus to Caiaphas. As Mary, Jenna Rubaii sings a perfectly serviceable “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the song of a thousand community college auditions. Annas (Tyce Green) is played as a cross between the singer for Greta Van Fleet and that one guy who quoted Monty Python nonstop in your high school cafeteria. Herod (Paul Louis Lessard) is the prissy comic relief, obviously inspired by Hamilton’s King George.

All of this is fine, I suppose, and comes to a thrilling climax at the end, the crucifixion, the money shot, the thing we’ve all been waiting for after 90 minutes of this no-longer-blasphemous collision of the sacred and the profane, because proggy rock music is no longer offensive, nor is the show’s central notion that Jesus wanted to die, that he was the original “suicide by cop,” and that upholding his crucifixion as the basis for a major world religion is human folly.

Paul Louis Lessard as Herod in the North American Tour of 'Jesus Christ Superstar.'
Paul Louis Lessard as Herod in the North American Tour of 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' (Matthew Murphy)

My own long-standing theory is that, in 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar helped a lot of stoned hippies flush a religious upbringing out of their system. It’s important to remember just how overwhelmingly white and Christian America was back then. Forty-five years ago, more than 80% of Americans identified as white Christians, a staggering figure. It’s now at 44%. I’m not saying this new staging needs to feature today's self-proclaimed saviors—like, with projections of Joel Osteen sermons or Brooklyn Dad tweets—but it needs to do something new.

As it is, this Jesus Christ Superstar anniversary production is a campy, weird, confounding spectacle. It says “this thing existed once, and now it exists again.” It is certainly a collection of people, on a stage, doing things that people can do. But in simply dressing up an old show in new clothes, it tries to appeal to both older fans and young audiences alike. After 50 years, that'd take a miracle, on par with walking on water. This one sinks.

'Jesus Christ Superstar' runs through Nov. 7 at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. Details here.