Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Des McAnuff
Location: Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., New York, NY
Set Designer: Robert Brill, Lighting: Howell Binkley, Costumes: Paul Tazewell, Sound Design: Steve Canyon
Starring Paul Nolan, Josh Young, Chilina Kennedy, Tom Hewitt, Bruce Dow, Marcus Nance, Aaron Walpole
Singing and Making Melody
Reviving Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s pioneering retelling of the Gospels is a risky proposition, not so much because of its subject matter but because the world has turned a few times since the show’s original run in 1971. The idea of rock music on a Broadway stage was still fairly new at the time, and the authors’ iconoclastic suggestion that Jesus may in fact have been “just a man” raised a few hackles among the religious establishment. Today, with The Book of Mormon taking irreverence to new heights and shows like American Idiot cranking up the power chords, any production of Superstar will have to rely on the score’s intrinsic qualities in order to compete for the attention of younger theatergoers.
The good news is that the show’s construction holds up well. Webber’s score, firmly rooted in a pop idiom is more satisfying than some of his more self-consciously operatic later efforts. Rice’s concise lyrics pack a strong narrative drive and sit well on top of Webber’s hummable melodies. Like a traditional passion play, Superstar follows the events of the final week of Jesus’ life. The wheels of history are set in motion as Christ’s antiauthoritarian rhetoric puts him at odds with ruthless Roman and Judaic leaders, and an ideological clash with Judas leads to betrayal. Although the story is reframed in an anachronistic universe, the events of the play don’t contradict the accounts found the New Testament. The King of Kings is not shown performing miracles or rising from the grave (post-crucifixion encore notwithstanding), nor is he endowed with carnal imperatives as in the controversial Scorsese version. Audiences are free to decide whether Jesus was divine or human.
The less encouraging news it that this edition is not quite the crisp, confident revival the material deserves. Indications of the show’s priorities appear even before the curtain rises as the customary disembodied voice advises the audience that unwrapping lozenges is perfectly acceptable. The score, says the announcer “will drown you out.” Like many of the Redeemer’s own prophecies, this proves to be all too true. Loudness, of course, is not out of place in a rock opera. But the decibel level should be dictated by the content, not the other way around. At times the orchestra seems to compete with the vocalists’ efforts rather than to support them.
Thankfully, all three of the leads have strong enough voices to compensate for any awkward sound mixing. Paul Nolan’s beatific blue eyes and lithe frame echo both the Renaissance depictions of the Christ and the modern image of rock and roll idol. Reminiscent at times of Axl Rose and Jeff Buckley, he tackles challenging high notes with remarkable clarity and sustain. Josh Young is a middle range belter, well suited to the part of the fiery, conflicted Judas. Chilina Kennedy wisely takes a gentle – though by no means weak – approach to Mary Magdalene’s songs of comfort and devotion. Her take on the tender ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is particularly moving. The trio sport an impressive emotional range as well, but their acting is hampered by director Des MacAnuff’s indecisive staging and somewhat muddy visual style. A combination of neutral-colored costumes and low- key lighting creates an interesting mood, but also obscures the action. Still, there are quite a few high points in the first act, which focuses on Christ’s rising notoriety and Judas’s back room deal with Judea’s power elite. As the high priests Caiaphas and Annas, Marcus Nance and Aaron Walpole deliver a chilling rendition of the jazzily sinister “This Jesus Must Die.”
The elements come together better in the more tightly constructed second act. Tension palpably mounts as Jesus’s imminent demise grows closer and Judas is driven mad with remorse. In an intriguing touch, Roman prefect Pontius Pilate – usually treated as a walk-on in most Biblical adaptations – is presented here as an embattled politician caught in a chain of events over which he has little control. Though he would rather spare Jesus than condemn him, Pilate’s hand is forced by the Nazarene’s stubborn refusal to cooperate. Sickened by his own cruelty, the gangster-like prefect is compelled by duty to maintain authority at all costs. Tom Hewitt brings intelligence and toughness to the part, and sings the material as naturally as if it were written with him in mind. In a smaller but no less memorable number, Bruce Dow gives a delightfully apoplectic performance as the glitter-clad King Herod (though here again, the dingy lighting obscures Lisa Shriver’s toe-tapping choreography.)
The show’s finale features designer suits, an electric crucifix, and a hydraulic lift on which Jesus hovers above the audience. Whether all this is meant to be a satirical comment on the marketing of Jesus as a brand name, or merely a Big Finish to justify the ticket price isn’t clear. Far more effective is a quieter beat in which Kennedy and Nolan delicately enact the tableaux of Mary kneeling before the cross. It is moments like these that hint at the power the production might have had if its capable cast had been allowed to emphasize subtlety over spectacle.
Despite its flaws, the evening certainly isn’t boring, and flashes of brilliance shine through despite an overall lack of cohesion. Clearly, though, MacAnuff and company should have spent a few more weeks in Stratford tightening the show before bringing it to Broadway.