Jesus Christ Superstar’ on Steroids
By: Isa Goldberg/Chief Theater Critic
One has to credit the creators of “Jesus Christ Superstar” for their audacious approach to a sacred subject. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s “in-your-face” religiosity gives some contemporary meaning to an age-old story. And as directed here by Des McAnuff the tale has an urban urgency, which you can’t escape. In fact, the music is so loud and the beat so persistent that no one can avert it’s penetrating message. In short, the production is for teenagers and their allies.
Yet for some, the songs are nearly as iconic as the tale they tell. And in this production, which feels like it’s coked up and running on roller skates, you can hear every word. That would be rare for any Broadway musical. Indeed, you won’t want to miss some of the juicier lyrics about how they smeared that man Jesus Christ (played by Paul Nolan). Reflecting on his situation over dinner, The Last Supper, he complains that he must be mad to think he’d be remembered. “My name will mean nothing 10 minutes after I’m dead,” he moans. Even the Superstar falls prey to our fixation with celebrity.
Physically, Nolan is a natural for the role, but his voice sounds strained, and his delivery feels too wooden, as if he’s already been crucified. Josh Young’s Judas, on the other hand, is fascinating in his suspended state of animation. For a stand out performance, Marcus Nance brings an ungodly deep baritone to Caiaphas the Roman-appointed Jewish high priest. Portrayed here as a black hat, he’s joined by his fellow Hassids as they organize the plot to kill Jesus.
But to me, the most endearing role in the show is Chilina Kennedy’s Mary Magdalene. In portraying her with a feminist sensibility, Kennedy gives the character a masculine touch. Amidst the hard driving rock n roll music, the character’s mellow ballads, most famously “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” come as a huge relief.
Streamlined, and broadcast with digitized scrolls running across the stage, the production has a high tech, high-octane gloss. Robert Brill’s design of metal scaffolding with an elevated catwalk integrates with Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projections. Paul Tazewell’s costumes capture the characters’ generic meaning with bold and anachronistic strokes: the contemporary blends with the historical. With the vivid color scheme for the three leads – Jesus, swathed in white, Judas in blue, and Mary Magdalene in yellow – they are visibly, a trinity. In fact, the three central characters form a love triangle, of sorts. So that it is human motive, not just a retelling of biblical events, that ultimately drives the production.
In addition, contemporary secular references – from the youthful revolution in Tahrir Square to the dizzying illumination of Times Square – abound. As you can imagine, the choreography is pumped up and frenetic.
As if there weren’t already enough chaos on the stage, King Herod (Bruce Dow) appears in a totally outré number, “Herod’s Song.” While its lyrics have a sinister, threatening edge, they’re treated comically, and topped off with ragtime rhythms. The attendant spectacle evokes the showmanship of movie musicals of old. Of course, it’s all in the service of telling a story, which comes out with remarkable clarity, even for audiences that are not familiar with the New Testament. This time the story is marketed to deliver a message without ambiguity.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street. For tickets call Ticketmaster at 877-250-2929, visit ticketmaster.com, or go to the box office.
Photos By Joan Marcus
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