The most frequently resurrected rock opera of them all got a new generation of disciples when the big-budget, John Legend version aired on NBC this past Easter. But not even that version of had the #Resistance resonance and modern-day power of Ray of Light Theatre’s Jesus Christ Superstar, playing through June 9 at the Victoria Theatre with an all-female cast and provocative parallels to the Black Lives matter movement, police violence, and the current bloodshed in the very region where this age-old story is set.
Most Andrew Lloyd Webber trufans have seen more than a few different versions of Jesus Christ Superstar. Every production claims they’ve “updated it” for the contemporary age, maybe by casting apostles with a couple tattoos. But this Jesus Christ Superstar uses the 50-year-old script and score to aggressively remind you of our daily descent into tyranny, and how it affects women and people of color.
Directors Eliza Leoni and Shane Ray do not stage this Jesus Christ Superstar as a feel-good sing-along musical production. They aggressively incorporate all of the most horrible things you see on cable news every day, with technically deft use of multiple onstage video widescreens and mimics of viral social media posts.
The result is more inspiring than depressing, powered by Janelle LaSalle’s highly relatable turn as an African-American Jesus, plus an amusing cast of villains. The foils and baddies are depicted as bleached-haired Fox News correspondents and high society Cruella DeVils, and Courtney Merrell’s Pontius Pilate stands out as a maniacal Paltrow-Kardashian mashup.
As with any show at San Francisco’s oldest operating theater, the sound quality at The Victoria is a little less than outstanding. If you’re spoiled by traveling productions of this show with big-name pop stars in the cast, you’ve heard these roles voiced more professionally than you’ll hear them here. Except in the case of Maita Ponce as Mary Magdalene, who sings and acts that role as magnificently as you’ll ever see or hear.
A good night out at the theater makes you forget all the world’s problems. A great night at the theater makes the world’s problems an allegorical component of the show, and sends you home thinking. This Jesus Christ Superstar rises above other productions of the legacy show by casting it entirely with women, confronting the today’s most troubling social issues, and walking on water instead of watering it down.
Jesus Christ Superstar, Wednesdays-Saturdays through June 9, 8 p.m., at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., $35-$40; (415) 863-7576 or victoriatheatre.org