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‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Brings Cleveland Strings To Stage

Jesus Christ Superstar” comes to Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace Theatre this week, and audience members will find something different than when the musical visits other cities.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock opera. Stephen Gabriel, producer of the national tour, asked Gina Vernaci, president of Playhouse Square, to see the show in Chicago at Lyric Opera in 2018, with the hopes that she would agree to bring it to Cleveland. Vernaci went reluctantly, she admitted. Having seen “Superstar” so many times before, she wondered whether this production would offer something that audiences hadn’t already seen.

The powerful production, directed by Tim Sheader, captured Vernaci’s attention.  Sheader’s “Superstar” reconnected to the rock roots of the original 1970 concept album.


Alvin Crawford, Tyce Green and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." [Matthew Murphy]

“When Tim  wanted to put this onstage, he thought to himself about a rock band, about a group of people coming together to create something. As the show begins, you'll see a rush of people come onto the stage. You don't really know who's Jesus, who's Judas. It takes its shape in the way a rock band would be like, ‘you're going to play guitar on this one. I'll play bass. You're going to be Jesus on this one. I'm going to be Judas.’ The concept comes from this kind of traveling group of musicians that are going to put a show on,” Gabriel said.

Vernaci said she was not only taken with the staging she saw in Chicago, she loved that the already powerful sound of the band that tours with the show was augmented by Lyric Opera’s orchestra.  When Vernaci contacted Gabriel after seeing the show, she had an idea.


James Delisco Beeks and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar" [Matthew Murphy]

“Gina's brainchild was to add a complement of strings that would fill out all the beautiful string orchestrations that are in the piece,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel said that taking the show on the road makes that difficult.

“Normally when you tour it's impossible to have 30, 33 players. You just can't do it. You can't pick up enough musicians. There's not enough time normally to rehearse it. We travel with a band of 11 players, which gives you a big rock sound, but you don't have that big, lush string sound, because that's what you're missing, “ Gabriel said.

In Cleveland, 22 Northeast Ohio string players join the production for three weeks of work. Playhouse Square officials said logistical challenges might prevent this feature from debuting opening night, Tuesday. 

Vernaci proposed a different place for the string musicians to perform on stage than the traditional orchestra pit.


James Delisco Beeks, Aaron LaVigne and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar." [Matthew Murphy]

“They’re actually going to be in the side boxes, so that the sound is really going to reach out to the audience from the stage and wrap itself around the audience in a special way,” Vernaci said.

Gabriel said that having the string players be visible fits with Sheader’s approach to “Superstar.”

“We’ve talked to our wardrobe department about making the look of the players match the look of the people that are onstage. We brought our lighting designer in to make sure the whole visual impact is the same, so it's not just about the sound. I think it's going to be pretty spectacular when people see it,” Gabriel said.


James Delisco Beeks, Aaron LaVigne and the company of the North American Tour of "Jesus Christ Supersar." [Matthew Murphy]

Jesus Christ Superstar” will be presented in Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace Theatre March 10 through March 29.





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