I’ll begin with the disclaimer that this comparison of productions of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar might imply a strong bias for Chicago’s storefront theaters over the Broadway in Chicago touring companies. I love both, but it does happen that this production of Godspell from Theo Ubique exemplifies the best of storefront theater, and the 50th Anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar is all volume and glitz with no substance.
Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar are linked in many ways. Both premiered in the early 1970’s (Godspell Off-Broadway in 1971; JCS on Broadway in 1972) and explored the concept of Jesus as an anti-establishment hippie. Godspell is the first hit from American composer Stephen Schwartz, and Jesus Christ Superstar is the first hit from British composer Andrew Lloyd Weber, who was notably born just 18 days after Schwartz. Behind The Lion King, Schwartz’s Wicked and Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera rank as the second and third most profitable musicals of all time.
One of the advantages of a storefront theater like Theo Ubique is the potential for an intimate connection between the cast and audience. One of director Christopher Pazdernik’s main conceits for Godspell is that the actors are all playing versions of themselves. The exceptional lead Austin Nelson, Jr., is referred to as Austin (rather than Jesus) as he manically conducts the rest of the cast in acting out parables. The evidence of Nelson’s conviction to his role is present in the layer of sweat that streams down his face from beginning to end. Anna Marie Abbate is referred to as Anna Marie (rather than Judas or John the Baptist), and she plays the role with commendable subtly, displaying skepticism toward Austin’s teachings that foreshadows the character’s later betrayals. The entire cast is given a great freedom in acting out the parables, and they often insert modern allusions for comedic effect.
The set is a path running across the floor creating a perception that the characters are meeting in a park, and the audience are passersby who cannot help but watch the scenes emerging before them. The main cast of 10 manages to perform intricate choreography that never feels limited by the long, narrow shape of their stage, but the most significant highlight is the singing. Each of the 10 leads performs a song beginning with Izzie Jones’s infectious “Day by Day.” Matthew Hunter is another standout using powerful lead vocals in “Light of the World” before sending the audience into the intermission. All told, Godspell succeeds beyond expectations at using its small space to provide a memorable experience for its audience, who is close enough to touch the action.
Jesus Christ Superstar, on the other hand, seems to be working toward the opposite ambition of isolating its audience from the emotions of a powerful musical. Early on, I realized that the presentation was more consistent with a rock concert than a performance of musical theater. The lead actors held microphones and often played guitar during their solos (remaining mostly stationary to the action), which is an interesting idea for a rock opera. However, in practice it led to a sense that each song was its own separate entity. Therein lies the main problem with this production. When the talented Jenna Rubaii as Mary sings a countrified version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” she is more reminiscent of Carrie Underwood singing on stage rather than a character dealing with complex issues. Similarly, Aaron LaVigne as Jesus seems to be channeling Steven Tyler during “Gethsemane” (known by the repeating lyric “I’d Want to Know, My God”). He demonstrates his frustration at God by throwing the microphone stand upstage, but such antics are a distraction when the song itself—usually my favorite in the musical—communicates so much about Jesus’s mindset. Omar Lopez-Cepero as Judas focuses more on jumping around his significant vocal range than articulating what Judas had to say. What astonished me most was I left the theater not humming a song, which was far from the case after my two viewings of the superior 2017 production at the Paramount Theater.
The concept is consistent with the origins of this official 50th anniversary tour, which began at the open air theater at Regent’s Park in 2016, and what I sat through in Chicago would have worked well in an outdoor amphitheater with half the seating of the Cadillac Palace. At the very least, the opening chords of the overture would have been less ear-splitting in their volume. This production is not unbearable, but it needed someone at some point to consider that less can be more when starting with a compelling story and a full roster of memorable songs.
Both Godspell at Theo Ubique and Jesus Christ Superstar at the Cadillac Palace run through July 31.