It may have been the talent — Sara Bareilles, Brandon Victor Dixon and John Legend — that made millions tune in to the Easter telecast of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live,” but for plenty of theatergoers, it’s the show and its history that has had them stepping up to snag a seat to the London-born stage production now making its Lyric debut.
When the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice creation opened on Broadway in 1971, it presented a challenge for ticket-buyers accustomed to more conventional offerings, like “Fiddler on the Roof.” While the music itself wasn’t shocking — the rock album that preceded the stage production topped the charts — the show’s humanizing of Christ and its somewhat forgiving take on Judas certainly upset some.
The Olivier-winning production now onstage in Chicago is directed by Timothy Sheader, who gives the 48-year old material a bright, contemporary texture. And acclaimed British choreographer, Drew McOnie — whose work ranges from ballets to “Hairspray” — has earned an Olivier Award himself for the storytelling power of his dynamic movement.
“The show doesn’t require a sense of literal dancing to further the narrative, so we wanted to develop an expressionistic physicality that let us in on the characters’ emotional states,” McOnie says. “It centers on a group of highly committed followers to a shared belief system, so I wanted to create the kind of mass movement synonymous with cults by using unison visuals, and movement that draws a fine line between pain and pleasure.”
McOnie, who will direct “King Kong” on Broadway this fall, credits Sheader for his steady stewardship. “From day one, Tim set out a crystal-clear vision for the production, and it was inspiring to see him never waver from that. Whenever there came a moment when I might have been doubting the choreographic conceit, that vision brought much needed clarity. It was Tim’s encouragement that led to the piece being as physically expressive as it is. I would have lost my nerve if it hadn’t been for that.”
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
Through May 20, Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Upper Wacker. For tickets (starting at $44), visit Lyricopera.org