Whether Judas is viewed as a traitor or liberator, actor James Delisco Beeks has embraced the buzz around the pivotal role he’s playing for the third time, as he crisscrosses North America in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The 50th anniversary tour of the groundbreaking 1970 Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera will be on stage at the Des Moines Civic Center from Tuesday (1/14) to Jan. 19 — with a twist.
It’s being treated like a rock opera, using both body mics and hand-held microphones, along with plenty of dramatic lighting effects and dance.
“Our intention is to go to the foundation of the rock concept album, because this was a rock concept album before it was ever a stage production,” Beeks said from a recent Baltimore tour stop. “That’s where we’re going toward — focusing on the music and singing. It’s a rock concert mixed in with a dance concert.”
The music and mayhem all revolve around the final days of Jesus’ earthly life, from his time with his disciples to his conflicts, persecution and crucifixion.
Point of view
Because the musical is told from Judas’ point of view, Beeks has taken deep dives into various source materials, emerging with revelations about the conflicted, complex man who betrayed Jesus, leading them both to their deaths.
“I don’t necessarily see Judas as a bad character,” Beeks said. “I think he’s been interpreted that way. Without Judas’ actions, when you think about it, the whole plan of salvation would not have been achieved, since he had to do what he had to do. Christ told him, ‘You have to do this.’ And also, since the Gospel of Judas was found in the early 1970s, it tells a very different story. He’s a misunderstood character. In this production, there’s a lot of sympathy towards Judas and his plight.”
The third time around, the show continues to stretch Beeks as a performer, from concept to stage.
“I try to have a great time developing the character and studying the archetype,” he said. “It’s very emotional and it’s very demanding vocally, but I like a challenge. It’s just a dream role and I’m grateful to perform it every night. ... It’s one of the most difficult vocal roles in musical theater.”
His favorite musical moment, “Heaven on their Minds,” launches the show.
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“It sets up the whole story,” he said. “It’s told through the eyes of Judas, so it tells what’s going on in his mind. It’s a passionate plea. Tim Rice wrote the lyrics, and he wanted to give Judas a voice. The ones who stayed alive were the ones able to tell the story, and this is a chance for Judas to have a voice, and I think he has a nuanced story to tell.
“And it just leaves us with a question: Do we look at Judas in a different light? That salvation, that grace that Christians cherish, was because of Judas’ actions.”
Those actions also set into motion one of Beeks’ favorite effects, when Judas collects the silver for betraying Jesus to the arresting forces.
“He reaches his hands into the box, when (they) come out, he’s seen with silver all over his hands. Throughout the rest of show, it just grows up his arms and all over, as a sign of guilt of the silver that he took for the betrayal, which ultimately leads to his demise. It’s a cool moment.”
Controversy and popularity
The album topped Billboard’s charts twice in 1971 and ended the year ahead of Carole King’s “Tapestry.” But the ensuing movie and stage production stirred up controversy in the early ’70s among Christians and Jews.
“The main problem it had back then was that in the first act, Judas was a sympathetic character. That has waned over the years,” Beeks said. “Since the Gospel of Judas was found, it’s just a whole different perspective on Judas’ mission.”
“Superstar” has prevailed, stirring up excitement half a century later through this re-imagined production and nationwide tour that launched in October.
“It’s been getting great, great reviews,” Beeks said. “People are really stunned by it, because the tagline is: It’s not your grandma’s ‘Superstar.’ It’s a whole different take on the piece, so people didn’t expect what they saw, but they loved it.”
He credits one very crucial factor to the show’s staying power and relevance.
“The music. That’s why it’s the 50th anniversary of that brown album,” he said. “ ... If you close your eyes while you’re in the show and just listen to it, we really want to give homage to the album. That’s the whole foundation of this production. That’s why you get a rock concert, you get a dance concert — and if you get a story out of it, it’s an added bonus.”
He gives a special nod to the ensemble in the show.
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“It introduces a whole new character, which is the mob,” he said. “The same people who have lifted this cultural personality up — with Jesus at the beginning — is the same mob that tears him down and is looking forward to killing him. It’s a reflection of our time today, with the kind of cancer culture: Say one wrong thing and you’re done. It’s just a reflection of our society.”
The show also plays to his vocal strengths. Beeks was a singer before adding acting and dance to his wheelhouse, and has been a Las Vegas headliner. He’s also a writer and published poet, and is working on a new book, carving out a couple of hours of writing time each day during the tour.
Growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., he developed his artistry at the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, which he said is one of the nation’s top performing arts high schools.
He studied music education in college, but switched career goals to performing, and moved to New York in the early 2000s, landing roles in “Kinky Boots,” “Aida,” “Ragtime” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”
“I got my first Broadway show, and it said ‘actor’ on it, and I said, ‘I’m not an actor.’ I’ve kinda been thrust into the acting world,” he said. “I love it. I get paid to do what I love to do, and a man can’t ask for anything more.”
If you go
• What: “Jesus Christ Superstar” 50th anniversary national tour
• Where: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St., Des Moines
• When: Tuesday (1/14) to Jan. 19; 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14 to 17; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 18; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 19
• Tickets: $40 to $164, venue box office, (515) 246-2300 or desmoinesperformingarts.org
• Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission
• Website: ustour.jesuschristsuperstar.com
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