REVIEW: Jesus Christ Superstar

This week is your last chance to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s epic rock-opera at the Chanhassen

If you’re looking for a quiet evening out, don’t go to the Chanhassen Dinner Theater. On the other hand, if you want to experience one of the best musical productions of the year, then the retro dinner theater (the largest in the nation) is exactly where you want to be. Now in the last week of its run, Jesus Christ Superstar packs more energy, emotion, fervor, and depth into a musical-theater performance than has been seen all year, on Twin Cities stages or elsewhere around the state.

The first rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Superstar chronicles the final seven days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, before you scoff and file the piece into your “obnoxious religious ploys” file, hear me out: this is not The Bible: The Musical. Instead, it’s electrifying music (the electric guitar plays as central a role as any other character on stage), edgy character analysis (especially David Anthony Brinkley’s (The Scottsboro Boys) interpretation of Pontius Pilate), and a tantalizing blend of pointed symbolism and more discreet messages.

Artistic director Michael Brindisi makes full use of the Chanhassen’s spacious stage and seating area to further draw the audience into the story. Actors frequently dance, sing, and drag themselves through the aisles, not only breaking the metaphorical fourth wall between the stage and the seats, but eliminating any separation usually felt between those performing and those watching. You can feel the anguish and pain of the lepers as they limp their way toward Jesus to be healed; your heart skips a beat when the crowd of supporters shouts and sings “Hosanna,” waving scarves and smiling excitedly. It’s this intimacy and complete sensory immersion that puts Superstar above most productions, but it’s the tremendous skill of the actors that keeps it up there.

Ben Bakken, a Chanhassen regular, is phenomenal as Jesus. His impressively clear and wide-ranging tenor voice never misses, whether he’s screaming at vendors, crying out on the cross, or trying to reason with his followers. And nobody does crazy eyes like Jared Oxborough (Judas). In the final scene of act one, just after Judas accepts the blood money from High Priest Caiaphas (played by the very talented, goose bump-inducing bass Sean Nugent) to betray Jesus, Oxborough kneels on the edge of the stage, illuminated by a red light. As he processes the consequences of his actions, you can see him struggling to swallow his fate while coping with the fear of being “damned for all time.” But a show can’t rely on a handful of actors to succeed, and it’s the ensemble of Superstar as a whole that truly makes the show shine. Perfect harmony, tangible energy, and whole-hearted dedication are present at all times, and contributed by all on stage.

A rare treat of a performance that makes you laugh and also invokes tears, if you haven’t been to the Chanhassen yet to see Jesus Christ Superstar, get there this week: it’s your last chance to witness the magic that is great theater.

Jesus Christ Superstar
Chanhassen Dinner Theater
Tuesday, July 26–Saturday, July 30
Times and prices vary
501 W. 78th St., Chanhassen