As actor and musician Aaron LaVigne watched the last few minutes of Super Bowl LVI, he may have wondered if any prayers would carry a little extra weight. The Cincinnati native and lifelong Bengals fan is currently starring as Jesus in the North American tour of the 50th anniversary production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which runs at the Kennedy Center through March 13.
The hazards of fame is a prevalent theme of the musical. Written by the EGOT-winning team of Sirs Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, the entirely sung rock opera chronicles Jesus’ last seven days through the eyes of Judas, who betrays his leader out of concern about the ministry’s direction. The current 33-city tour production is a visceral, 90-minute version based on an Olivier-winning production in London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from 2017.
“Jesus is a singer-songwriter in this production, LaVigne (pronounced La-Vih-Nay) says, “and the music is his message.”
The concept fits the actor well. LaVigne, the son of a drummer, listened to all things classic rock, from The Beach Boys to Jimi Hendrix. He has toured and released albums of original music himself, as well as performed in the 10th anniversary Off-Broadway revival and international tour of “Rent” and Broadway’s “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.”
“It’s awesome that I get to apply [those experiences] to the production. I get to be a singer-songwriter who’s trying to express himself and do the right things.”
The “right things” anger many of the people who built Jesus up in the first place.
“The show explores the dangers of mob mentality,” LaVigne says. “The same group who builds you up are the same people who destroy you.”
He has likened his portrayal of Jesus to Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, celebrities for whom fame and fortune ultimately played a destructive role.
LaVigne is no stranger to “Superstar,” having performed in several different productions over his career, including a turn as Judas in his final semester of high school, the cap to twelve years of attending Catholic school.
“The musical takes the story I heard every day in religion classes and every Sunday [in church] and puts the flaws of being human into it,” LaVigne says.
The musical has long elicited both praise and contempt for its depiction of the main character’s interpersonal relationships and psychology over divinity. LaVigne calls the 50th Anniversary tour “more challenging” than his earlier productions, but also says it’s “more meaningful. It’s simply staged and communicated, but it resonates more for me.”
Putting the current production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” into the context of his career, the actor says, “When the stakes are high, I tend to lean in more because it really says something. At the end of the day, we’re all longing for connection and a higher power. And the way the show is written, it has the power to stand the test of time. I’ve worked hard to get here, but I have to step back and realize just how cool what I’m doing is.”
About the Bengals, LaVigne has faith: “They’ll be back.”
The “Jesus Christ Superstar” runs at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through March 13. For tickets and more information, click here.