As theatre-goers flock to the Fox Theatre this week to see the 50th anniversary staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s iconic rock musical “Jesus Christ Superstar, the friendship displayed onstage by Omar Lopez-Cepero as Judas and Aaron LaVigne in the title role isn’t just acting. The pair have been friends for 15 years and LaVigne even served as a groomsman in Lopez-Cepero’s 2018 wedding to fellow Broadway performer Arianna Rosario.
“We’re really tight buds so bringing that relationship, that dynamic into the show, totally enhances what we’re doing onstage,” says Lopez-Cepero. “We’re both really competitive, we play sports together and that plays really well into the show, too. Judas and Jesus were the best friends. That’s what makes the betrayal so difficult and shocking.”
For Omar Lopez-Cepero, a 2000 graduate of Duluth High School in Gwinnett County, this week’s performances in Atlanta represent a homecoming. The actor first discovered his passion for musical theatre when he was cast as Patrick in Duluth High’s production of “Mame” as a diminutive freshman.
“Since the character’s age is 11, they were going to cast a girl,” recalls Lopez-Cepero. “Thankfully, I was a 4 foot, 11 freshman whose voice hadn’t changed. It ended up changing my life.”
After growing up going to the Fox to see “Les Misérables” and “Stomp,” spending a week getting to perform on the iconic 1929 theatre’s stage represents the fulfillment of a career goal for the actor and singer.
Says Lopez-Cepero: “I told my cast mates be prepared for a massive seating area but also an extraordinarily beautiful theatre.” He’s also warned them about something else indigenous to his hometown — the Springtime pollen count, especially since this staging of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is sung straight through with a rock band on stage for 90 minutes and no intermission.
We’ve been kind of chasing the pollen since [the show’s tour stop in Washington] DC. Unfortunately, I deal with allergies as many of us do so it’s a delicate balance of treating It with allergy medicine but not drying yourself out too much and affecting your voice. We definitely all have burning eyes and itching throats. I’ll never forget growing up in Atlanta and seeing the pollen cover the lakes!”
After multiple delays due to COVID, this 50th anniversary national tour of the musical was dealt an additional blow offstage last fall when James Beeks, the tour’s original Judas was arrested for his alleged participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. “As Aaron’s friend, I had been on the journey ever since he booked the show in 2019 so I was aware of what was happening,” says Lopez-Cepero. “I ended up auditioning after all of that and came into the show in January. It took me a minute to get my legs under me walking onto a moving train. But it’s been such a blessing. This is an incredible cast. It is truly an ensemble effort every night.”
Longtime fans of “Jesus Christ Superstar” will love the 2022 show’s throwback feel to its original source material: the 1970 two-LP set, recorded before the musical was ever put on stage. The Webber-Rice double album would go on to sell seven million copies worldwide, closing out the year-end 1971 Top Albums chart in the number one slot, even beating out Carole King’s “Tapestry.”
“This production really wanted to honor the origin of the music and so a lot of the arrangements have returned to that original source material, that concept album, that style,” says Lopez-Cepero. “The way this production has been directed is that it almost parallels a rock group or rock star’s journey and makes it kind of a mirror to what perhaps may have happened to Jesus and his disciples. We come onto the stage like we’re getting ready for a gig, complete with microphone stands, cables and amps. It feels a bit like what happens if an indie rock band suddenly gets super famous and all of a sudden, they gain popularity and are dealing with the trappings of money. The goal is to find the humanity in this story. This production doesn’t ask you to view the gospel in a different way but it’s asking you to use a different lenses.”
One of the musical’s most distinguishing qualities, of course, is its humanization of Judas, one of the Bible’s great villains. “The show explains why Judas makes the decisions he makes and perhaps, why Jesus is acting a certain way,” says Lopez-Cepero. “There’s a lot of things for us, as actors, to dive into. Over the years, Murray Head, Carl Anderson, Ben Vereen and others have all lent their voices to this role. It’s some big shoes to fill. The greatest thing about this production is that it allows us to bring our own individuality to it to some degree.”
When the “Jesus Christ Superstar” tour wraps in August, the kid who got his start on stage at Duluth High is next scheduled to hit the boards at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater playing Lon (the role originated by James Marsden) in the world premiere of the Broadway-bound “The Notebook” musical based on the 2004 film. “Yes, I get dumped!” says Lopez-Cepero, laughing. “It’s a beautiful piece and I’m happy to be a part of the show’s development. Michaelson wrote the score and she really captures the emotional moments so beautifully plus the book is adapted by Bekah Brunstetter, who is one of the lead writers on ‘This is Us’ so she obviously knows how to tell an emotional story well. I think people are really going to love the show.”
The 50th anniversary national tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar” plays at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, April 24. For tickets, go to the Fox Theatre website.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.