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Director Des McAnuff’s hyperkinetic productions can give the impression that he never met a scaffold, an elevated catwalk, a video wall or a stadium-style lighting plot he didn’t love. But despite all its tricked-out technology, his Jesus Christ Superstar is firmly tethered to its roots. Its fat, funky synthesizer sounds, folky guitars, wailing rock falsettos and hippified lyrics render it a 1970s pop-culture artifact — earnest but kitsch. Does the production make a great case for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s epochal take on the Passion play? Probably better than most. Either way, it’s an entertaining guilty pleasure.
Having revivals of the two iconic biblical rock musicals of the ’70s reach Broadway in the same season allows for a useful comparison. Godspell, which opened in November, apologizes for its origins, disguising its songs in fussy modernized orchestrations and vocal mannerisms and heaping belabored jokey contemporary references onto every scene. Superstar is not averse to present-day nods, starting with a digital rewind from 2012 to 33 A.D. and a wardrobe (courtesy of costumer Paul Tazewell) that ranges from period-nonspecific boho chic to trashy Vegas glitz. But music director Rick Fox treats the rock-symphonic score and vocals with integrity appropriate to the era in which the material was born. And McAnuff’s pedal-to-the-metal direction never precludes sincerity as it weighs the once-controversial man-or-Messiah question. That means this staging is likely to speak to ’70s nostalgists (guilty as charged) as well as younger musical fans curious to know what the fuss was about. (The show is one of two landmark Rice/Lloyd Webber collaborations returning to Broadway, ahead of Evita, which opens April 5.)
The hit of the summer’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where McAnuff is artistic director, the production’s key onstage asset is Josh Young’s Judas Iscariot. And given that this account of the final week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is told from his betrayer’s point of view, it’s fitting that Young’s electrifying vocals and brooding presence dominate.
The central triangle’s remaining two points are less magnetic. Rocking his cleavage-baring white robes, Paul Nolan’s Jesus certainly makes a sensual picture of noble suffering. And like Young, he has the ample vocal range to do the songs justice, notably his tormented second-act soliloquy, “Gethsemane.” But the title figure always has seemed stifled under his symbolic weight in this show, and that hasn’t changed much. Nolan maintains a somber, introspective intensity but reveals scant evidence of the charismatic power that galvanizes his disciples and threatens his enemies.
Chilina Kennedy’s Mary Magdalene is similarly beautiful but also a touch bland, underselling the emotion behind such pop hits as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Could We Start Again Please?” McAnuff might have been wary of making the relationships too steamy, but Mary M. seems merely a pretty groupie who’s handy with massage oils.
Such weaknesses might be less the fault of the performers or director than the creators of the show, which began life as a 1969 concept album. But from the moment Judas warns his friend of his political misgivings in “Heaven on Their Minds,” his visceral struggle with himself, his petulant jealousy of Mary and his cancerous remorse are vivid and compelling.
Much of the inescapably retro feel is due to Rice’s self-consciously groovy lyrics. The high priests look imposing in their dreads and long leather tunics, but when Caiaphas (sung with a deep bass rumble by Marcus Nance) muses, “One thing to say for him, Jesus is cool,” it’s hard not to snicker. The most unfortunate lyrics are in the melodic folk-baroque “The Last Supper,” in which the apostles sound like drippy, starry-eyed teens: “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle/Knew that I would make it if I tried/Then when we retire we can write the Gospels/So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.”
Cheesy lyrics aside, these remain some of Lloyd Webber’s catchiest tunes, spanning rock to pop to operatic bombast. McAnuff and choreographer Lisa Shriver stage the numbers with urgency that won’t quit, aided by an athletic cast. Starting with the overture and early ensemble number “What’s the Buzz?” the energy level never flags. Bruce Dow milks sneering humor and escalating bitterness out of the campy vaudevillian “Herod’s Song,” while Young socks across a hard-charging “Superstar” backed by foxy go-go girls.
Having scored hits with The Who’s Tommy and Jersey Boys, McAnuff is at home in rock-based storytelling. (His next project is Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a long-planned musical inspired by the 2002 Flaming Lips album, set to debut in November at La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego.) Occasionally, the director gets a tad overzealous with the video components; the palm-waving in “Hosanna,” for instance, calls to mind a religious-themed 007 title sequence. But boosted by Howell Binkley’s spectacular lighting, the visuals are bold and dynamic, particularly the flashy yet poignant “Crucifixion,” which segues to a sea of Bible quotations on electronic news tickers.
If this rock-opera reimagining of the “Greatest Story Ever Told” is far from ageless and seems unlikely to spark major new insights for believers or nonbelievers, as a time-travel experience it offers plenty to enjoy. And in Broadway’s current Jesus smackdown, Superstar trounces Godspell.
Venue: Neil Simon Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Paul Nolan, Josh Young, Chilina Kennedy, Bruce Dow
Director: Des McAnuff
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