Jesus Christ Superstar Review: Bright Lights and Hotpants
When “Jesus Christ Superstar” opened on Broadway at the Mark Hellinger Theater in 1971, the concept album had already sold two and a half million copies. So, while protesters picketed the sacrilege of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first Broadway musical and theater critics were largely unimpressed (“minimal artistic value”), it hardly mattered then.
Now “Jesus Christ Superstar” has landed on Broadway for the fourth time, and I suspect critical opinion hardly matters now either. Nobody cares enough to picket anymore; indeed, the composer and his lyricist Tim Rice have become both rich and respectable (they are Sir Andrew and Sir Tim.) But it is worth noting that, two decades after “Jesus Christ Superstar” opened there, the Mark Hellinger was decommissioned as a theater and became Times Square Church, which might strike some as poetic justice, if not divine retribution.
In any case, the current production of this dialogue-less rock opera about the last seven days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth originated at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Toronto, and is directed by the festival’s artistic director, Des McAnuff, who also directed “Jersey Boys,” which is right across the street.
This “Jesus Christ Superstar” has your standard high tech (set)/high grunge (costume) design, like any number of sci-fi flicks. The set features a post-apocalyptic series of catwalks, and lots of glaring lights blasted into your face along with the high-decibel shrieks of electric guitar.
There is a heavy reliance on really bright light bulbs, especially those used in the kind of light zipper that swirls around the One Times Square building with the news. When the musical begins, we first see in big bright bulbs: “2012,” which then quickly rolls back digitally to “33.” They probably should have started with “1971.”
There are several good things to say about this “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The sound is unusually clear, which makes you wonder why the sound can’t be better at better shows.
The highlight of the production is “King Herod’s Song,” a kind of burlesque featuring Bruce Dow as the king, singing in front of light bulbs formed into an enormous H, with a garishness that comes off as intentional (self)parody, enhanced by winning choreography for an ensemble dressed in outfits that seem somewhere between Madonna and Monty Python.
The rest of the show seems far closer to unintentional parody, especially the
scene where Jesus chases the money-lending go-go girls and boys in gold hotpants out of the discotheque, and then the several scenes that together make up the crucifixion, which seems to owe more to Howell Binkley’s lighting than McAnuff’s directing.
None of the performers can be faulted. Paul Nolan as Jesus is a bland blond presence but he has a nuclear-powered voice.
Chilina Kennedy is lovely as Mary Magdalene and does fine with one of the two enduring hits from the show, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” (The other is the title song)
Like Nolan and Kennedy, Josh Young is making his Broadway debut. He is the third member of what is presented in “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a kind of love triangle. He plays Judas Iscariot. He is the third Judas I’ve seen on stage this season (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Godspell), and he is excellent.
I’m not sure what it says that in all three shows, Judas outshines Jesus.
Jesus Christ Superstar
at the Neil Simon Theater
Lyrics by Tim Rice; music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Des McAnuff; choreography by Lisa Shriver; music direction and supervision by Rick Fox; sets by Robert Brill; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Howell Binkley; sound by Steve Canyon Kennedy; video by Sean Nieuwenhuis; fight director, Daniel Levinson; stunt coordinator, Simon Fon; music coordinator, John Miller;
Cast: Paul Nolan (Jesus Christ), Josh Young (Judas Iscariot), Chilina Kennedy (Mary Magdalene), Tom Hewitt (Pontius Pilate), Bruce Dow (King Herod), Marcus Nance (Caiaphas) and Aaron Walpole (Annas).
Running time: 2 hours.
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