Close to the merciful end of "Jesus Christ Superstar," Jesus (Glenn Carter) looks down from his Cross and says, "God forgive them - they don't know what they're doing."
It's the show's one moment of truth. Admittedly, it might seem hard to believe that any actor stuck in this awful musical would be so willing to forgive its creators, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But after all, Carter has merely been beaten, mocked, scourged and crucified. Compared with what everyone else in the theater has to endure, that's getting off easy. This first revival of the show that took Broadway by storm in 1971 does induce a certain nostalgia, reminding us of a time when many people were outraged by "Jesus Christ Superstar."
Whether or not you believe in the sacredness of the story behind the show, it's one of the key narratives of the Western world. For thousands of years, it has inspired great art. Rice and Lloyd Webber, though, reduce it to a series of empty postures. Their Jesus is a bland, empty nobody - and this makes the role almost impossible to play without coming across as a self-absorbed wimp. That, alas, is precisely the impression Carter creates. The show does have two lovely melodies - "Everything's Alright" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" - and a rollicking honky-tonk production number in "King Herod's Song."
And the actors who get to sing them - Maya Days as Mary Magdalene and Paul Kandel as Herod - get through unscathed. But "Jesus Christ Superstar" also has some of the worst lyrics ever inflicted on professional performers. At the Last Supper, for example, the Apostles sing "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."
When Lloyd Webber's score moves beyond ballads, he writes the kind of high-pitched, screeching rock that was in vogue in 1971. For singers with natural rock voices, this isn't so bad. But most of the cast seems deeply uncomfortable with the music. Too often, instead of a soaring Roger Daltrey-style howl, a strangulated shriek assaults the ears. With such basic problems, it's hard for even the most lavish production values to make much difference. Peter J. Davison's set is handsome and clever. Roger Kirk's garish costumes, though they occasionally have an eccentric energy, merely add another layer of kitsch. Director Gale Edwards, for her part, throws in idea after idea in an increasingly desperate attempt to make something happen. By the end, we get the scourging as an outtake from an Alice Cooper concert and the Crucifixion as a multimedia spectacle in the style of U2's "Pop" tour. Although you have to admire Edwards for trying, dumping flashy tricks into the vast empty spaces where taste, intelligence and creativity should be was always going to be a futile exercise.
You’d think there'd be some fresh thinking, some imagination behind the first "Jesus Christ Superstar" on Broadway since its 1971 premiere. No such luck.
The production that opened yesterday at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts is the same old thing - a glitzy album without a thought in its head dressed up as a musical.
For starters, the look is a mishmash. The city of Jerusalem is four columns with a metal walkway halfway up the columns.
The rear wall is adorned with graffiti that makes no sense in any language. There is, it seems, a revolution on, and the young rebels are in chic military duds and color coordinated machine guns.
But are they rebels or peaceniks? Unclear.
Jesus - Glenn Carter in a fairly stiff performance - is not in military garb, however, but sports pants and a long, loose white shirt.
He is, I guess, a rebel leader who is sympathetic to the oppressed and opposes a military rebellion.
Nothing is very clear. His main sympathizer is Judas (Tony Vincent, a capable player), a blond-tinted young sourpuss. He is uncomfortable with what he sees as the growing veneration of Jesus: "I remember when the whole thing began," he sings. "We called you not God but man."
The lyrics are by Tim Rice and the music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and there are a couple of catchy tunes amid the filler. Mary Magdelene is the show's dominant female figure. In love with Jesus, lusted after by Judas, she has a few memorable tunes like "I Don't Know How to Love Him."
The attractive Maya Days pours herself into the part. But, for a richer and fuller version of a sympathetic, amorous female, see Aida in "Aida" by Tim Rice and Elton John.
Speaking of consumerism - Jesus is no slouch in attacking it, as he blasts the temple's black and Arab street hustlers and its white stock-market traders in "The Temple."
The real enemy is the establishment, vaguely defined by Pilate in a rubber costume with an odd-looking breastplate. His goons are fascists and mafiosi.
They get the support of Judas, who sells out Jesus. After a preposterous Last Supper where Jesus talks about "this wine which could be my blood," Judas betrays him into the hands of the meanies.
Judas promptly hangs himself, but returns in a red jacket (a Gap in hell?) to join in the taunting of Jesus but eventually to repent.
Jesus gets tied to a modest wooden cross as an enormous electrical cross rises center stage behind him.
There is a moment, though, when we get a glimpse of what this confused and vulgar mess might have been if it had been really reimagined.
As a Las Vegas show man putting on a revue, Herod - entertainingly impersonated by Paul Kandel - attempts to hire Jesus.
This is not in the Bible. His song of temptation and co-optation is very funny, complete with a dancing court. The lively scene is an example of what this story could have been if it had been rethought thoroughly.
Instead, "Jesus Christ Superstar" is a slipshod and vulgar try at retelling the old story with the help of then-hot music and politics.
It was cheap in 1971, and it's even worse now.
People who always insist that where there's smoke there's fire probably haven't spent much time at the theater. Whenever artificially generated clouds of gray start drifting moodily across a stage, abrading the eyes and throats of the audience while bringing to mind spook houses at school carnivals, it's usually an indication that the flame of imagination is burning low. This doesn't mean that your instinct to bolt for the nearest exit isn't a good one.
There is plenty of smoke in the new revival of ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' that opened last night (on Palm Sunday, if you please) at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, even though Jerusalem was never, to my knowledge, famous for its fogs. Nonetheless there it is, that catchall symbol for the mystical and the ominous that seeps across the proscenium, causing theatergoers to wave their programs before their faces and think that there must be something sinister afoot.
There will be other sensory assaults in the show, staged by the Australian director Gale Edwards in the wake of her successful touring production in Britain, from the giant crucifix made of hundreds of high-wattage light bulbs that glares right into your eyes to the oversize video image of a battered, bloody Jesus just before his death.
There is also the aggressive but uncertain amplification of the orchestra, which sometimes suggests someone is fiddling idly with a volume knob. What there isn't, through the whole of this 30th-anniversary staging of the epochal rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, is a single original idea.
''Jesus Christ Superstar,'' which began as a concept record album in 1970 before its varied reincarnations on stage and film, has never been easy to translate into visual terms.
The 1971 Broadway version, directed by the iconoclastic Tom O'Horgan (fresh from his success with ''Hair''), was notorious for its extravagant, whimsical and largely irrelevant-seeming stagecraft, the total effect of which the critic Clive Barnes, writing in The New York Times, compared to ''the Christmas decorations of a chic Fifth Avenue store.'' And does anyone still talk about the Norman Jewison film version?
Ms. Edwards has chosen a fairly straightforward approach, clearly aimed at young audiences and awash in emblems of youth-courting topicality. The action starts with 12 disciples, many of them in camouflage fatigues, painting graffiti across the columns of Peter J. Davison's set, which brings to mind the underpass of an urban bridge. The temple from which Jesus drives the money-changers has LCD displays quoting stock figures. And the Roman centurions, of course, evoke storm troopers.
These are images that most adolescents are familiar with from MTV, where they are deployed with far more sophistication, giving the unfortunate impression that live theater is no match for film or television. The choreography by Anthony Van Laast brings to a mind a group of maverick high school students hopping around subversively at their prom.
The singing is performed by a mostly young cast with the ardor of kids in a karaoke bar, though lyrics are not always distinguishable. The acting is big on grimaces, with the blond, spiky-haired Judas (Tony Vincent, who took over the part less than two weeks ago) looking like a pretty boy rocker in anguished search of a band, and Jesus (Glenn Carter), registering as pale, passive and petulant, giving a sort of Jewish princess air to the character.
The cast members invest so much energy in their performances that you wish you could return it. This is doubly the case since ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' is the freshest and most audacious of the Rice-Lloyd Webber creations. (I confess that I grew up listening to it and can still recite most of the lyrics.)
The idea of looking at Jesus as a celebrity icon, who wore his fame ambivalently, was inspired and prescient. So was making Judas, the opera's narrator, a figure forced to play a fatal role he didn't really want to take on.
There is a remarkable melodic verve in the Lloyd Webber score, without totally sacrificing a pure rock edge. And Mr. Rice's lyrics are irresistibly loose and impudent. (From the Last Supper scene: ''Always hoped that I'd be an apostle/Knew that I could 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.'')
''Superstar'' works better as a chain of virtuosic songs than as a sustained piece of theater. It doesn't fully follow through on most of its themes, and the disjunctiveness is much more evident in performance. This is not a problem that Ms. Edwards resolves, and when she recreates the torture and crucifixion of Jesus in the familiar, iconic ways (despite the intrusions of news cameras), it feels unearned.
Moments of electricity that are not of the Con Ed variety are few. But Paul Kandel, who plays King Herod as a cross between a Las Vegas comedian and the M.C. of ''Cabaret,'' at least has some bite. Kevin Gray brings a vicious authority to Pontius Pilate. And Maya Days is a lovely Mary Magdalene, sweet-voiced and earthy.
Mr. Carter, who was brought over from the London cast, is not terrible, but he seems to disappear before your eyes in even the early scenes. On the other hand, it has never been easy portraying Jesus, and it is hard to remember any actor (other than Willem Dafoe) who became famous playing the role. For whatever reasons, one of the ultimately charismatic figures of Western civilization, so memorably evoked in music and painting, tends to elude representation in the flesh.
Anyone who experiences Jesus Christ Superstar in its current Broadway incarnation, which opened at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, will be forced to conclude that the title is a contradiction in terms.
As portrayed by London-based actor Glenn Carter, the Jesus in this production (* 1/2 out of four) of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's 29-year-old rock opera -- the first to grace the Great White Way since the original -- has barely enough star presence to lead a wedding band, let alone a spiritual revolution.
Presumably cast for his sensitive good looks -- perhaps not coincidentally, he resembles Willem Dafoe in the film The Last Temptation of Christ -- Carter brings a limited range to this demanding role. Clad in a loose white robe, he wanders the stage trying to look alternately righteous, concerned and beatific, but his feline posturing evokes a model more than a messiah. Only toward the end, when Jesus is tortured and crucified, does Carter manage to convey more emotion than a typical Calvin Klein ad.
It doesn't help that Carter's singing reveals a thin tone and tentative pitch. In fact, none of the principals is a particularly strong singer – a big problem, given that Lloyd Webber's rather syrupy melodies demand real vocal chops to make them compelling.
Tony Vincent, who plays Judas sporting a leather jacket and spiky, bleached-blond hair, has a more potent, resonant voice than Carter.
But Vincent also fails to hit some notes securely and resorts to histrionics in his efforts to convey the character's inner conflict.
Kevin Gray's Pontius Pilate and Frederick B. Owens' Caiaphas are similarly overwrought, both offering bass-baritone rasps that suggest a cross between Darth Vader and a bad Robert Goulet impersonation.
The softly alluring Maya Days fares better as Mary Magdalene, but her tangy mezzo-soprano isn't hearty enough to do justice to the score's best song, I Don't Know How to Love Him.
The most redeeming feature of this production is the chorus of apostles and disciples, whose youthful members dance and harmonize with an appealing, unforced energy. Unfortunately, this ensemble is saddled with staging that often seems contrived and muddled in its attempt to explore how Jesus would be received in modern times.
Director Gale Edwards, scenic designer Peter J. Davison and costume designer Roger Kirk apparently couldn't decide whether they wanted to present the play as a science-fiction movie, a punk-rock documentary or a hip-hop video. The sets mix graffiti-strewn walls and other signs of urban squalor with flashy nods to Wall Street and Las Vegas, while Jesus' followers and tormentors change from street clothes to glittery showgirl gowns, from mack-daddy garb to futuristic black getups evoking space-age villains.
The Crucifixion scene is particularly jarring: A screen hangs over the stage, allowing audience members to zoom in on the proceedings as they might at a rock concert. As mock reporters and paparazzi roam the stage, Judas prances about in a shiny red jacket, looking like Billy Idol circa 1984, and a posse of "Soul Girls" poses videogenically.
Should it turn out that this revival doesn't sweep the Tony Awards in June -- a pretty safe bet -- perhaps the cast and crew will be compensated later this year with an honorary MTV Video Music Award. But I wouldn't count on it.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's "Jesus Christ Superstar" is remembered with deep affection by a wide cross-section of Americans of a certain age, even many who've never been avid theatergoers. Fans who formed a bond with the show in their youth will be happily flocking to the huge Ford Center to see how the new Broadway revival measures up against memories of the popular album or movie versions --- or the time they played Disciple No. 6 at summer camp, to such ego-boosting eclat. They may be scandalized or delighted by Gale Edwards' East-Village-apocalypse production, but they'll be hearing the score through a pleasant filter of nostalgia.
On the other hand, those whose reactions are not tinted by remembered affection may be left mystified --- or even stupefied. A show that was groundbreaking 30 years ago, when the Broadway musical was just beginning to shake off the dust of decades of tradition, looks less momentous, and not a little ridiculous, today. Lloyd Webber's infectious melodies still grab and hold the attention, but the ersatz rock idiom he employed here (and soon abandoned) is dangerously dated, despite Lloyd Webber's new orchestrations, and Rice's preposterous lyrics induce titters with exhausting regularity.
Perhaps sensing that the merits of the show might not beam too brightly in a production redolent of the aesthetically distant early '70s, the revival yanks the show firmly into the 21st century. Rough-hewn tunics and Holy Land vistas give way to contemporary equivalents: The disciples sport costume designer Roger Kirk's colorfully grungy urban gear on their gym-sculpted bodies. (Jesus stands out dramatically in his white linen tunics and open-toed sandals --- and those sandals are taking martyrdom rather far, since everyone else sports thick-soled combat boots.) Christ's carefully multicultural assortment of followers cavort against a backdrop of graffiti under a structure resembling a concrete overpass in Peter J. Davison's rather glum, overblown conception. The production is aggressively with-it, eager to convince us with every pierced nose and blue buzz cut that the show is as vitally "now" as "Rent."
A bookless "rock opera," which was born as an album before being staged on Broadway in 1971 (720 perfs) and London in 1972 (eight years), "Jesus Christ Superstar" has little dramatic progress or characterization --- it's really just a series of musical vignettes from the last days of Christ.
The British Glenn Carter plays JC, as he is sometimes embarrassingly referred to in Rice's lyrics. He spends the first half of the show beaming beatifically at some distant point (his future kingdom, or the Ford Center balcony?), arms raised in vague gestures of benediction. The second half he spends less happily, of course, being tortured repeatedly and ... well, you know. Carter sings and submits with commitment, displaying a limber, reedy falsetto that alternates with a supple wail during more anguished moments.
JC's calm benevolence is in contrast with the whiny angst of Judas Iscariot, who is played by the charismatic Tony Vincent. Vincent, too, must wail mightily at the climax of his songs, and he does it with a fervent gusto that never flags , despite his vocally lengthy role. With a white, spiky mane and various sexy-grungy getups, Vincent looks like he walked in from "Rent" (in fact he did, his bio says), and makes a dangerously appealing bad guy.
There are plenty of less appealing ones around, of course. Christ's persecutor Caiaphas (Frederick B. Owens) and his minions are got up like SS Storm Trooper action figures, in black floor-length jackets and rubber chest pieces, and they sing in various audibly evil vocal registers. Paul Kandel, as King Herod, enacts the show's big gesture toward camp, arriving accompanied by a facsimile of the Supremes, himself made up to look like the creepy uncle of Alan Cumming's emcee in Broadway's "Cabaret." A big marquee with lights blinking Herod's name descends, along with a TV variety-show backdrop and more dancers. It's the production's major extravaganza, although the Crucifixion has some splashy moments, too, including a giant cross constructed of lights that descends to blind the audience for a moment or two.
"I Don't Know How to Love Him," Mary Magdalene's mournful ballad, was the show's big hit, and its enduringly pretty melody is sung here with soulful flourishes by Maya Days. There are indeed catchy riffs aplenty in Lloyd Webber's score, but every time a comprehensible lyric fights its way through Richard Ryan's ear-splitting sound design, you immediately regret it.
It cannot have been easy to find plausible colloquial language for these legendary figures, of course, and obviously they can't sing the King James Bible , but the once-hip flipness of Rice's lyrics now registers mortifyingly: "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," runs the chorus from "The Last Supper."
Jesus, too, seems to have an eye trained rather alarmingly on future fame, demanding in "Gethsemane," "Why should I die? Would I be more noticed than I ever was before? ... Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?" He is, in a way, a man for our image-obsessed age, to which Edwards later makes a heavy nod in a garish MTV-video sequence, with Judas as rock star.
JC needn't have worried so much about posterity. Time has been very good to the man, but the same can not necessarily be said for "Jesus Christ Superstar."