Judas Iscariot is up front and center in Lyric’s Jesus Christ Superstar

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CAST MEMBERS FROM the North American premiere of Jesus Christ Superstar now playing at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House.

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader

One of the greatest stories ever told comes to life in the groundbreaking, iconic rock musical that reinvented musical theater for the modern age. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, this global blockbuster tells the story of the final weeks in the life of Jesus Christ, from the perspective of Judas Iscariot.

As Christ’s followers grow more fervent, Judas must make his fateful choice between faith and betrayal. Filled with an exciting mix of musical styles that draw upon 1970s rock, Gospel, folk and funk themes, this contemporary imagining of the biblical tale features high-energy dance and powerful storytelling. A must-see Broadway hit of the new seasons!

Most folks are familiar with the story about how Jesus was betrayed by one of his most trusted companions, Judas Iscariot. An actor who has played Stevie Wonder in “Motown the Musical” plays a brilliant Judas in the North American premiere of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (JCSS) now playing at the Lyric Opera House until May 20th.

Ryan Shaw, who has a marvelous voice, is from Atlanta and made his New York debut in Tyler Perry’s play “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” He is an accomplished singer, performing Motown covers and later joining the group Fabulous Soul Shakers. His first album, “This is Ryan Shaw,” earned him a 2008 Grammy nomination, and he later received Grammy nominations for albums released in 2011 and 2014. During 2016, Shaw lived in London performing in one of the city’s longest-running shows, “Thriller Live,” in which he honored one of his all-time favorite artists, Michael Jackson.

Shaw’s earliest experience with live theater was when he was around eight-years-old in church and saw the Easter play. “It was kind of a passion play,” Ryan said. “But I remember it being very emotionally impacting. I grew up in a southern Pentecostal church and from the age that we could talk we were put in a choir, and that’s when it started for me, around age five.”

Shaw says that a challenging aspect of playing Judas is that it is his first principal role in a musical, but the experience has been amazing. “Judas throughout history has been pegged as the villain always bruiting and scheming to get Jesus for some unknown reason or for silver,” Shaw said. “My Judas is not a villain. He’s a best friend, and he seems to be the only one who sees this whole concept of God and how we can interact with God without the priests.”

This is an ambitious undertaking for the Lyric, and the music and songs are just fantastic. I remember this play from decades ago, and it was a delight to be able to quietly sing along with the more popular songs. Mary’s rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is great, as well as “What’s the Buzz” and “Gethsemane,” which was, of course, performed by Jesus, who is portrayed in the play by Heath Saunders. Saunders most recently was seen in NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.” He has also performed in “Rent,” “Hairspray!,” “Spamalot” and “Titanic: In Concert,” among other productions.

The scene of Trial by Pilate/39 Lashes is a sight to behold and such a powerful translation of what we believe about Jesus Christ’s beating and crucifixion.

Here are a few facts about the production: The production uses more than 80 artists on stage. There are nine principal artists. There are 39 ensemble members (13 are from the Lyric Opera Chorus). There are 37 musicians. There are 31 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Six are in the rhythm section. Five members on the creative team are direct from the award-winning London production for this premiere. There are 34 cast members making their Lyric debut. There are 29 cast members who are currently living in the Chicago area. There are 24 musical numbers.

Also, there are 56 mics used, and 101 lights illuminate the 37-foot cross. There are 150 total costumes, and King Herod’s gold cape is an amazing 28 feet long. Cast members will be outfitted in 112 pairs of sneakers, and there are 90 pounds of gold confetti used at every performance.

It is a great production, whether you believe in the idea of Jesus Christ or just want to experience great theater.

As Shaw commented: “This production, simply put, begs you to answer the question, ‘What do you believe?’ Not just about this story of Christ, but about the greater realm of religion and the human experience as a whole. This production is truly a spectacle that you don’t want to miss.”

The Lyric Opera House is located at 20 N. Wacker Drive. For more information, visit Lyric Opera – Lyric Opera of Chicago

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