NEW YORK – Director Des McAnuff’s hyper-kinetic 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. The big difference separating them is that Godspell, which opened in November, continually 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 last summer’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where McAnuff is artistic director, the production’s key onstage asset is its Judas Iscariot, Josh Young. 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, with his honey-blonde locks and beard. 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 has always seemed stifled under its 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 may have been wary of making the relationships too steamy, but Mary M. seems merely a pretty groupie who’s handy with the massage oils.
Such weaknesses might be less the fault of the performers or director than the creators of the sung-through show, which began life as a 1969 concept album. There’s little dramatic breathing space in the episodic scenes, and more interesting psychological texture in Judas or Pontius Pilate (an effectively contemplative Tom Hewitt) than in Jesus or Mary. Christ’s self-examination even when articulated remains remote. 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.
While contemporary parallels abound, the show’s clash of the pure and meek against the unfeeling establishment remains stuck in a ‘70s counterculture sensibility, as does its attempt to strip away the myth and view Christ as a man. Likewise, its reflections on the perils of celebrity seem like old news.
Much of that 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.”
But 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 an 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. Among the highlights, Bruce Dow milks sneering humor and escalating bitterness out of the campy vaudevillian “Herod’s Song,” while Young socks across a hard-charging “Superstar,” outfitted in royal blue satin and sequins, 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 later this year at La Jolla Playhouse.) Occasionally, the director gets a tad over-zealous with the video components: The palm-waving in “Hosanna” calls to mind a religious-themed 007 title sequence, and “The 39 Lashes” approaches The Passion of the Christ extremes. 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 non-believers, as a time-travel experience it offers plenty to enjoy. And in Broadway’s current Jesus smackdown, Superstar at least trounces Godspell.
Venue: Neil Simon Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Paul Nolan, Josh Young, Chilina Kennedy, Tom Hewitt, Bruce Dow, Marcus Nance, Aaron Walpole, Lee Siegel, Mike Nadajewski, Matt Alfano, Mark Cassius, Ryan Gifford, Jeremy Kushnier, Jaz Sealey, Jason Sermonia, Julius Sermonia, Jonathan Winsby, Nick Cartell, Mary Antonini, Karen Burthwright, Jacqueline Burtney, Kaylee Harwood, Melissa O’Neil, Laurin Padolina, Katrina Reynolds
Director: Des McAnuff
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Set designer: Robert Brill
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Steve Canyon Kennedy
Video designer: Sean Nieuwenhuis
Music director and supervisor: Rick Fox
Choreographer: Lisa Shriver
Executive producer: Sally Campbell Morse
Presented by The Dodgers, The Really Useful Group, Latitude Link, Tamara and Kevin Kinsella, Pelican Group, Waxman-Dokton, Joe Corcoran, Detsky/Sokolowski/Kassie, Florin-Blanshay-Fan/Broadway Across America, REG/Caudwell, Shin/Coleman, TheatreDreams North America, Stratford Shakespeare Festival