‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ arrives with modern spin at Schuster this week

Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

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Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

50th anniversary tour slated Aug. 2-7.

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice’s bold, daring and iconic rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” is over 50 years old, but its latest national tour intends to speak to contemporary audiences with fresh, relevant urgency.

Slated Aug. 2-7 at the Schuster Center courtesy of Dayton Live’s Premier Health Broadway in Dayton Series, “Jesus Christ Superstar” chronicles the final week in the life of Jesus Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot. Originally staged in 2016 at London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in an acclaimed, Olivier Award-winning production, the tour has been heralded for its use of sleek scaffolding, moody lighting, energetic choreography and stylish direction. The Chicago Sun-Times put it this way: “This is not your grandmother’s ‘Superstar.’”

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Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Combined ShapeCaption
Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

“This production has a rock concert vibe and the choreography, the physicality of movement, is really heightened because the stakes are high,” said Cincinnati native Aaron LaVigne, who portrays the titular role. “It’s a simplified, straight-to-the-point production that’s also very thoughtful and smart.”

“In a lot of other productions, the story is very literal, but this production uses a lot of symbols,” explained Omar Lopez-Cepero, who portrays Judas. “We use a lot of handheld microphones and microphone stands. In the production, in many ways, Jesus is like a frontman in a band idolized by his fans. Aaron also plays guitar throughout the show and the band is onstage as well. The show has a concert feel while also lending itself to the Passion Play. It’s a cathartic experience.”

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Omar Lopez-Cepero (left as Judas) and Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) in the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Omar Lopez-Cepero (left as Judas) and Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) in the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Combined ShapeCaption
Omar Lopez-Cepero (left as Judas) and Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) in the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Delving deeper into the idea of Jesus as singer-songwriter, LaVigne, who appeared on Broadway in “Spider-Man” and off-Broadway in “Rent,” finds a connective thread to revered performers who influenced pop culture.

“Look at John Lennon or Kurt Cobain,” he said. “There are so many levels and layers inside of these (artists) but the level we see in society, in the media, is the music, which people latch on to. They create gods out of them. They become larger than life to the point where it becomes so big and so dangerous that the same group that builds them up turns on them. Look at Kanye West. It’s self-inflicted in Kanye’s case, but people turned on him. It’s so easy for the media to do that to everybody. And in some cases, it’s dangerous and people lose their lives over it. My interpretation of Jesus – who for the first 20 minutes of the show is the center of the attention but is very much on an island – is that he has an internal struggle that not everyone sees right away, but when they see it, they understand.”

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Inside the music

In 1970, “Jesus Christ Superstar” skyrocketed as a concept album before heading to Broadway one year later. The pulsating, sung-through score balances electrifying numbers such as “Heaven on Their Minds,” “What’s the Buzz,” “The Temple” and “Superstar” with beautiful ballads such as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Everything’s Alright” and “Could We Start Again Please?”

“The music in this production lends itself to the original version,” said Lopez-Cepero. “It’s a return to the original album. A lot of the arrangements and musical stylings are much closer to that album.”

LaVigne and Lopez-Cepero have been given the Herculean task of singing some of the most vocally challenging numbers in the musical theater repertoire. However, each has grown to respect the material while respecting their bodies. Other than bouts with allergies, they have managed to stay healthy and strong.

“It’s been quite a journey and a learning process,” said LaVigne, who has been with the tour since 2019 and notably sings the passionate aria “Gethsemane.” “If you’re not careful and you’re not trained you can hurt yourself doing these roles. I prepared myself for my role, but I didn’t know what the rigors of living on the road would be. So, I stay hydrated, work out and make sure I get a good night’s sleep. This show is incredibly emotional and physically demanding, especially the whipping scene during the crucifixion which is intense in this production. I haven’t had vocal injuries, but this is about as real as it gets for a musical theater performer in a leading role.”

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Omar Lopez-Cepero (Judas), Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Omar Lopez-Cepero (Judas), Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Combined ShapeCaption
Omar Lopez-Cepero (Judas), Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

“Judas has been a journey for me as well and is the hardest role I’ve ever taken on,” echoed Lopez-Cepero. “This is a rock opera, and when you think about opera, most opera stars only do maybe three or four performances, so to tackle a score like this every single day, it’s incredibly vocally demanding. There’s also an emotional toll attached to playing these characters. Going through that on the daily can be a grind, especially when you’re on the road away from home and in different environments. There are a lot of things that make this show incredibly challenging, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. I’m grateful to interpret one of the most iconic roles in musical theater.”

Lopez-Cepero, whose Broadway credits include “On Your Feet!” and “American Idiot,” joined the tour in January. He enjoys putting his own spin on Judas within the score and in characterization.

“This score requires a certain level of danger,” he said. “If you sing this show too pretty, it doesn’t feel as if it has the turmoil or instability underneath. It’s been fun to find ways to make Judas feel dangerous, but it also creates its own challenges and is taxing on the voice. Judas has been painted for thousands of years as the villain and there are many things about him people can relate to, especially the negative side of humanity. I view Judas as aspirational – not evil.”

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Omar Lopez-Cepero (Judas) in the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Omar Lopez-Cepero (Judas) in the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Combined ShapeCaption
Omar Lopez-Cepero (Judas) in the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

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Friends, not foes

LaVigne and Lopez-Cepero find themselves in dramatic opposition during the course of the show, but acknowledge the long-standing friendship they’ve built off stage helps fuel their onstage bond. LaVigne in particular was a groomsman in Lopez-Cepero’s 2018 wedding to Broadway actress Arianna Rosario (“Moulin Rouge!”).

“What’s really important is that Judas and Jesus have to be very close and love each other at the very beginning for the betrayal to have its depth and weight,” said Lopez-Cepero. “Our own personal relationship lends itself to the storytelling in a great way. I came into this show later than most of the cast. It takes time to build relationships, trust and communication, but for us it was easy because we already knew each other for so many years. And in the show, Jesus and Judas don’t hate each other. It’s all love. It’s more like a relationship that falls apart.”

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Aaron LaVigne (Jesus), Omar Lopez-Cepero (Judas) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Aaron LaVigne (Jesus), Omar Lopez-Cepero (Judas) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Combined ShapeCaption
Aaron LaVigne (Jesus), Omar Lopez-Cepero (Judas) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

“Judas is Jesus’ right-hand man in their shared mission,” added LaVigne. “By the time Judas betrays Jesus, there has to be a level of disappointment, sadness and heartbreak rather than thinking Judas is just evil.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, this tour adjusted its schedule and didn’t play Cincinnati as expected. LaVigne, a Northern Kentucky University graduate, is eager to finally have his family and friends see the show in its final stop, especially as it resonates with current themes.

“I’m excited to close in Dayton,” he said. “It would’ve been special to play Cincinnati, but I’m excited to have my family, college professors and high school friends see me in Dayton. This show touches on the dangers of mob mentality and cancel culture. Our ensemble is a beehive. The mob worships Jesus Christ until they turn on him and it’s very obvious in this production.”

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Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Combined ShapeCaption
Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

HOW TO GO

What: “Jesus Christ Superstar”

Where: Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton

When: Aug. 2-7; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $26-$99

Tickets and more info: Contact Dayton Live by phone at 937-228-3630 or visit online at daytonlive.org.

FYI: The production is performed in 90 minutes without intermission

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Jenna Rubaii (Mary Magdalene) in the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Jenna Rubaii (Mary Magdalene) in the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Combined ShapeCaption
Jenna Rubaii (Mary Magdalene) in the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

Credit: MATTHEW MURPHY

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