Jesus Christ Superstar
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 17, 2012
Fans of the music of Jesus Christ Superstar will not want to miss the new Broadway revival; theater fans in general will likely be thrilled by Des McAnuff's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musicalization of the last week of Jesus's life as well, but it is the music above all that is brilliantly served in this stunning, seering, exciting show.
It reminded me, oddly, of the recent Lincoln Center Theater South Pacific: just as Richard Rodgers's score was honored there with a lush, large, expansive full-sized orchestra, so too here is Webber's seminal rock opera done justice with a first-class 15-member band who deliver what is to my ear the finest rendition ever of a rock score in the theater. They let Webber's music—from the comforting strains of "Everything's Alright" to the earnestness of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," from the bawdy, gaudy showiness of "Herod's Song" to the jolting thunder of the title number—do all the heavy lifting here, taking us on an evocative, emotional journey that allows us to hear this 41-year-old score as if for the first time.
Music coordinator John Miller and conductor Rick Fox and the 14 other expert musicians in the pit are thus, with Webber, the real stars of this production (there is no credit for orchestrations; are they Webber's?). Director McAnuff also deserves giant kudos for mostly staying out of the music's way and letting this JSC sing on its own; there are no big spectacular effects here, just a constant swirl of energy and movement (the excellent choreography is by Lisa Shriver) propelled by the pulsating rhythms and moods of the score.
The cast is splendid, too: the anchors are Paul Nolan's placid, determined Jesus (who only has one real opportunity to shine, in "Gethsemane," where he rises to the occasion quite shatteringly) and Chilina Kennedy's smart, graceful Mary Magdalene; its blazing hot center is Josh Young's Judas, a rock-star performance that explodes at the show's beginning with "Heaven on the Minds" and reaches an electrifying climax with "Jesus Christ Superstar," staged by McAnuff and performed by Young so thrillingly that it effectively blots out other renditions I've experienced and everything that follows it on stage.
The leads are supported ably by what feels like a near-perfect cast, refreshingly diverse and bursting with talent. Some standouts: veteran Tom Hewitt as a thoughtful Pilate, Aaron Walpole as Annas (suavely seducing Judas in the Act One closer "Blood Money"), Mike Nadajewski as Peter, and, memorably and rousingly, Lee Siegel as Simon, leading the company in the show-stopping "Simon Zealotes."
McAnuff's design team contributes mightily as well. Costumes by Paul Tazewell embrace numerous cultures and periods to remind us of the pertinence and timelessness of some of the show's themes. Robert Brill's spartan, high-tech set (the main element of which is a zipper-like electronic display that helps establish time and place within the story) is simple and direct. Howell Binkley's lighting is effective and Steve Canyon Kennedy's sound is miraculous, never drowning out the lyrics and never puncturing our eardrums while staying faithful to the rock concert ethos of the piece.
Now, with all this efficacious stageworthiness comes a price: the inconsistencies and flaws of the material itself are made manifest in this production in a way I've not noticed before. Directors, from Tom O'Horgan (1971) to Gale Edwards (1996), have imposed a point-of-view on the material beyond the go-for-broke irreverence of Rice's libretto; McAnuff, lets us hear what was written, for better and worse, and so the weird contradictions of the characterizations of Jesus and Judas and their troublesome relationship stand out rather baldly, as do the odd anachronisms (as when the apostles sing, at the Last Supper, of how they will write the gospels).
So this is less a Jesus Christ Superstar to remind you of the teachings of Christ or the political-social-economic parallels that may exist between now and two millennia ago. It is, instead, a visceral production whose power is going to depend, I think, almost entirely on how you respond to Webber's score. Me, I was floored by its potency and by its enormous influence—seen with the benefit of hindsight, mind you; but I came in a big fan already. I suspect there are lots of other fans out there, for the audience was on its feet almost immediately as the curtain call commenced. The energy on and offstage transformed the experience into an event, one that I imagine will be duplicated many more nights on Broadway.