While walking out of the Neil Simon Theatre, one might be forgiven for wondering: Who knew the greatest story ever told needed this much help?
Des McAnuff's hyped-up vision of "Jesus Christ Superstar" opened Thursday with a showbiz bang — pimping the story of Christ with riffs from mega-movie franchises like "The Matrix" and "The Mummy" and daring to wow by cramming in as many eye-popping visuals as a summer blockbuster.
The cast scampers up and down steel ladders like pirates, the priests wear full-length leather dusters, and the Roman soldiers look like bikers hopped up on meth while spinning metal poles. An unfortunate campy scene with King Herod — complete with a gaudy giant "H'' that will remind you of the History Channel logo — seems lifted from another musical altogether.
An electronic ticker sets the location — "Mount Zion. Thursday. Passover" — although the production weirdly also uses surtitles. Both are unnecessary. And projections, while well done by Sean Nieuwenhuis, simply add nothing until, in one of the final scenes, he floods the back wall with Bible passages. The costumes lean on cowl and tunics and long pieces of fabric, seemingly lifted from the desert scenes in "Star Wars," and there are frequently lines of dancers busting out hip-hop moves.
Basically, Jesus and Co. sometimes look like they're in a Billy Idol video, circa 1989.
The thinking must have been that such an overly muscular staging was necessary to resurrect a moldy old set of songs from the 1970s. But such lack of confidence is the ultimate betrayal of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, whose pulsating, guitar- and organ-driven score — led by standouts "I Don't Know How To Love Him," ''Everything's Alright" and "Superstar" — is still super and now given hypnotic life by musical director Rick Fox.
In fact, all the bells and whistles on stage grow increasingly cloying and wearying. What's with all the buzz? Quit it already. We get it: The eye candy — the razzle-dazzle — is meant to connect the Jesus story with a pop popularity contest like "American Idol," but it tries too hard.
"I've been living to see you. Dying to see you, but it shouldn't be like this," sings a lovely Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene with lyrics that might as well refer to this production. "Could we start again?"
McAnuff pushes the paranoid, a not bad decision, seeing as how the story ends. The actors are all prone to darting, fearful glances and have a look of being hunted. That mood is heightened by lighting designer Howell Binkley, who uses subdued grays and dark tones — the exceptions being the white-hot spotlights when God is present.
This is no hippy-dippy look at the last days of Jesus' life — this is one where the guy in robes with long blond hair (an all-around excellent Paul Nolan) is being hunted, the priests conspire in rumbling voices while dressed like bad versions of Morpheus, and there's a potential Judas everywhere.
Unfortunately, in one recent preview, the original Judas was actually missing: Josh Young, who originated the part, was felled by illness and the part was ably filled by Jeremy Kushnier. Young was to be in the lineup once again Thursday night.
There are some brilliantly staged moments — the beggars descending on Jesus in the song "The Temple/Make Us Well," the death of Judas and the final crucifixion of Christ. All are big and brassy. But then again, just a few blocks away, "Godspell" has the same crucifixion, just as moving but without the bombast.
There are moments in this "Jesus Christ Superstar" when it feels like a snuff show, one that gets off on torture. We didn't need to sit through all 39 lashes that strike the messiah, even if the accumulation of digital red blood looked cool. In McAnuff's world, subtle apparently is for sissies.
Nolan's Jesus starts quietly, often just staring out through his long hair like a baked Jedi, but finds an edge as the show builds, showing irritation and flashes of anger. The production highlights a power triangle — not a sexual one — between Jesus, Mary and Judas that hinges on which tactics the sect need to use and the ambition of its mercurial leader.
Judas' torment at his own betrayal — fated and yet also chosen — is so good it's visceral. Marcus Nance as Caiaphas brings a regality to the role and a voice so low it seems to scrape the floor. And Kennedy as Mary is bright and intense, although she seems to love her messenger bag as much as Jesus.
Other touches are irritating — Tom Hewitt is really good as a conflicted and yet smarmy Pontius Pilate, but is asked to walk around the stage in a velvet suit as if he were in a Vegas lounge act. Bruce Dow seems to channel Nathan Lane as Herod in a sequence that tries to trigger laughs at a time when laughs are hard to find.
The speed of the show — it clocks in at just 2 hours even with an intermission — means some transitions don't go smoothly in terms of tone. And the set — Robert Brill has chosen to place the action in some sort of poorly lit steel warehouse — relies on rolling bleachers, for reasons that are never clear.
This "Superstar" began life at The Stratford Shakespeare Festival and then had a final tuneup at the La Jolla Playhouse. McAnuff deserves credit for trying to make the story relevant — a ticker at the beginning even counts back the years from 2012 to A.D. 33 for those unfamiliar with history — but with its defiant fringe kids, boxy set, blinding lights and sneering cynicism, he ends up making it feel more like "Rent."
One of the best moments is among the last: Jesus preaching from what looks like a treadmill pushed out over the first few rows. He can't be heard over the razzle-dazzle behind him — a nice slap at those who dare to ignore Jesus' substance, but also an indictment of this production.
I don’t know how to love this.
The most passion I can muster for the flashy and mechanical new Broadway resurrection of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is qualified like.
Drawn from their rock-opera concept album, Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice’s (lyrics) biblically inspired collaboration debuted on Broadway in 1971. It made hits out of the rousing title anthem and insistent ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
It made waves, too, with its approach to the gospel that was heavy on slang, irreverence and squealing guitars. But time and countless high school productions of the musical have tempered any edge.
Forty years later, “Superstar” is a minor and pretty mindless retelling of Jesus’ final days. Broadway’s “Godspell” covers the same beat, giving added meaning to a second coming.
As a consequence of the thin material, director Des McAnuff, artistic head of the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival, where the show premiered last summer, works very hard to turn water into wine.
His thinking seems to be that by keeping things animated, the narrative shallowness won’t show. Even long drapey clothes by Paul Tazewell are designed to flutter and ride the wind as actors run around on the gleaming multilevel steel set.
The look and layout of the production feels familiar from McAnuff’s Tony-winning “Jersey Boys” and “Faust” at the Metropolitan Opera. In a bright stroke, a stock exchange-style ticker runs constantly to count down the story.
Act I feels like a Super Bowl halftime show with lots of ADD-style energy, visual punch and Janet Jackson-esque choreography (air-slicing arm thrusts and stomping is by Lisa Shriver). But no soul.
Things do improve in Act II and the show finally finds its way in the eye-popping crucifixion extravaganza. It’s a dizzying blend of music, Las Vegas chutzpah, irony and heart. By the time Jesus hovers over orchestra seats on a self-steering motorized platform, the production earns an enthusiastic OMG!
As the son of God, the capable Paul Nolan has the hair, looks and pipes that ascend to highs only dogs can hear. Chilina Kennedy brings a pretty voice but not much in the way of urgency as Mary Magdelene.
The heartiest hosanna goes to Jeremy Kushnier (filling in for an ailing Josh Young) as Judas, whose betrayal of Jesus gets major focus. Kushnier is a fierce singer and blessed with full-throttle charisma. It was a stunning turn of events: The understudy shall inherit the role — and walk away with the show.
It’s hard to pin down Jesus in the 1971 rock musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Sometimes, co-creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice seem to agree with Mary Magdalene, who sings “He’s a man, he’s just a man,” in the hit ballad “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.”
This is a low-key, unassuming messiah, especially as embodied in this latest Broadway revival by Paul Nolan — a lank-haired scraggly guy who can barely fill his tunic.
But then Nolan opens his mouth and whoa, here comes the superstar — a god of the rock kind, strutting about and casually dispatching falsetto thrills. This is a badass Jesus who sets the heathens straight in “The Temple” through the power of his megaphone voice. And when he shrieks “Whyyyyyyyy should I dieeeee?” in the epic “Gethsemane,” his cry shakes the mezzanine.
Like any good icon, Nolan’s Jesus exerts a pull that’s both spiritual and physical. “Mary that is good,” he sighs suggestively after everybody’s favorite hippie prostitute (Chilina Kennedy) coos “Let me try to cool down your face a bit.”
She’s not the only one who’s smitten. The governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (a solid Tom Hewitt), stands up for Jesus, while Judas Iscariot (Jeremy Kushnier in the show I saw, subbing for an ailing Josh Young) turns from devotion to betrayal out of jealousy and frustration. You can tell he goes bad because he switches from a blue toga to an eggplant-colored velvet suit that makes him look like a sommelier at Caesar’s — the one in Vegas, not Rome.
This transition illustrates Des McAnuff’s approach. The director — whose “Jersey Boys” plays right across the street — throws a lot of stuff at the wall. Some of it hits the target, but without a strong underlying theme, the show feels like a busy patchwork of styles and references.
Robert Brill’s set is your basic snazzy warehouse with scaffolds and catwalks, as well as an LED ticker tape indicating time and locations. Costume designer Paul Tazewell went for a “Jesus Beyond Thunderdome” look, with sci-fi rasta elements for the Jewish priests. That conniving cabal is led by Marcus Nance, a Metropolitan Opera National Council winner whose bass voice resonates with silky menace.
You can hear every nuance, because McAnuff is the rare director who understands the importance of good sound design.
Appropriately, this “Jesus Christ Superstar” is performed at rock-concert volume, underlining how great Lloyd Webber and Rice’s score remains. In one cracking song after another, we tour through the early ’70s: sensitive ballads, bombastic anthems, progressive-pop numbers and glam rockers.
Hearing excellent singers deliver these tunes through powerful, crisp amplification is a primal thrill. Next time, McAnuff may even get the story right.
Spoiler alert! Oh, just kidding. It will surely come as a surprise to no one that the title character in “Jesus Christ Superstar” does not come to a happy end, drifting blissfully into old age and obscurity on the sands of Judea. His gruesome death is depicted with unusually lavish flair in the director Des McAnuff’s flashy revival of the pop-rock musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber that opened Thursday night at the Neil Simon Theater.
After he has been dragged off by Roman thugs, hands bound and a look of sorrowful resignation on his face, Jesus (Paul Nolan) returns for a flogging, with each stroke of the lash counted down and represented by vivid red splashes streaking across the electronic back wall of the set. The metal staircase on which he is splayed is then turned to face the audience, the better to expose the bleeding welts criss-crossing his back.
Next come the crown of thorns and Jesus’ agonized crawl across the stage, bearing the weight of his own crucifix. And at last, after making yet another entrance, Mr. Nolan strikes the pose immortalized in centuries of art, clad in a demure loincloth, arms held out to his sides, one leg artfully bent in front of the other, head hanging down in tortured exhaustion. Gently spotlighted, he rises from the stage as if by magic, while a giant cross, pulsing with hot gold lights, descends from above to meet him. Mr. Lloyd Webber’s churning guitar rock hits a climactic note, and the audience erupts in excited applause.
If this delirious reception for a glitzy depiction of the most influential execution in world history doesn’t strike you as remotely absurd, Mr. McAnuff’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” may just be the right musical for you. I have to confess to finding the show alternately hilarious and preposterous — if often infectiously melodic — during the two hours’ busy traffic of Mr. McAnuff’s brisk and lucid staging.
First seen at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, the production employs mostly modern dress and a metallic two-tiered set, suggestive of an arena-rock extravaganza, to depict the final days in the life of Jesus. (The set, by Robert Brill, is similar to the one he created for Mr. McAnuff’s ill-received revival of Gounod’s “Faust” at the Metropolitan Opera this season.)
Jesus’ apostles and other followers are clad in chic gray street wear and tumble and slide across the stage with impressive athleticism in the show’s opening minutes, presumably in flight from their black-leather-clad oppressors. The daily countdown to the Crucifixion is displayed on an electronic ticker of the kind that snakes around buildings in Times Square. This is a story for all times, the production asserts, if not for all tastes.
It arrives with much of its original Canadian cast intact. The standout performance comes from Josh Young as a vocally lustrous and charismatic Judas Iscariot, well known for betraying his onetime mentor with a fatal kiss. In Mr. McAnuff’s production that kiss is particularly fraught, since the show trains a subtle focus on the tense triangle among its three central characters — Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy).
Mr. Young’s Judas sings repeatedly of his disappointment at Jesus’ betrayal of his ideals. But the hungry looks Judas repeatedly casts suggest that sexual jealousy plays no small role in his decision to turn the object of his agonized affection over to the Roman rulers, to whom this “King of the Jews” is a prickly thorn in the side.
Mr. McAnuff’s staging is rich in portentous looks, actually. Mr. Nolan’s serenely suffering Jesus is often to be found at or near the lip of the stage, peering into the middle distance with his piercing blue eyes, as if stoically watching his destiny unfolding on an HDTV screen at the back of the theater. Ms. Kennedy sometimes joins him in this pastime, as do some members of the chorus. If a musical were to be judged by the amount of time its characters spent gazing meaningfully into the audience, this production would be trumps.
Vocally it is impressive. Mr. Young’s voice is rangy, powerful and pure. Ms. Kennedy performs her solo, the onetime pop hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” with a graceful simplicity, although her Mary Magdalene tends to be overshadowed throughout by the more intense histrionics of Mr. Young’s conniving Judas. Mr. Nolan manages the murderous tessitura of the climactic “Gethsemane” number with impressive aplomb.
But even during this highly dramatic passage, I found myself wincing at Mr. Rice’s lyrics: “Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die,” Jesus sings, “You’re far too keen on where and how but not so hot on why.” (Not so hot, that.)
The agonies of Jesus are terrible to behold, of course, but on a far more trivial level one of the agonies of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is the unhappy combination of Mr. Lloyd Webber’s stick-in-your-head melodies and the often flat-footed lyrics they are wedded to. In 1971, when the show was first produced on Broadway, Mr. Rice’s slangy libretto presumably struck a with-it note that now hits the ear — well, my ear at least — as distinctly silly.
Speaking of which, the musical’s one overtly comic number, in which Herod, played with lascivious glee by Bruce Dow, taunts Jesus with mocking references to his spiritual powers (“Prove to me that you’re no fool/Walk across my swimming pool”) isn’t really the camp highlight of the production. Nor does Tom Hewitt, got up in a louche purple velvet suit as Pontius Pilate, pour on the villainy in lavish doses.
No, the kitsch apotheosis is surely the garish scene in which Jesus chases the money lenders from the temple. Here Mr. McAnuff dresses the chorus in the costume designer Paul Tazewell’s leather harnesses and gold hot pants (that’s the men) and slinky minidresses. As Jesus throws his temper tantrum, the dancers gyrate suggestively on metallic risers, performing Lisa Shriver’s choreography, which is a liability from start to finish and could be transplanted wholesale into a Britney Spears concert.
The effect is of a mildly naughty floor show at Caesars Palace. And in fact Las Vegas, where Mr. McAnuff’s “Jersey Boys” has recently reopened, might be the ideal destination for this slick production of a show that turns martyrdom into a splashy pop spectacle. Nothing like witnessing a Crucifixion to whet your appetite for the slot machines.
Satire and the Crucifixion have always been the uneasy partners in "Jesus Christ Superstar." They are impossibly incompatible, of course. And yet their friction has powered the show's audacity since 1970, when a couple of young British guys named Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (or their record producer) invited the press to a church to sit and listen to their newfangled concept album -- a pop opera. I was there.
In Broadway's latest revival, director Des McAnuff has tackled the irreverent/reverent challenge by ignoring the conflict altogether. The slick and loud high-tech production, acclaimed from Canada to Southern California, is serious, passionate and handsome in ways that seem to grow from McAnuff's recent years directing Shakespeare and opera.
If you like some fun in your "Superstar," however, the show that capped his final year as head of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival may feel pretty grandiose for much of the material. McAnuff, who famously also staged "The Who's Tommy" and "Jersey Boys," seems not to want to get the jokes here.
The show is, after all, not just another New Testament pageant. Composer Lloyd Webber and, especially, lyricist Rice wrote a prescient, even edgy and cannily preposterous commentary on the cult of personality, a cautionary tale about how celebrity can poison the most deeply felt social movement.
Jesus appears through light beams on the double-decker heavy-metal set, designed by Robert Brill with rolling bleachers and very tall ladders for Jesus' acrobatic followers to climb. A news ticker counts back from 2012 to Biblical time and counts off the last days.
The cast is full of strong wailers and howlers. Paul Nolan, as Jesus, has a big voice but not much charisma and, dare we say it, seems a bit of a mope. Jeremy Kushnier, ably replacing the ailing Josh Young as Judas at Tuesday's preview, deftly captures the character's fierce mixed emotions and strenuous, contrasting vocal styles.
Tom Hewitt is sardonic and rueful as a debonair Pontius Pilate, Bruce Dow nails the welcome camp as the vaudevillian Herod and Chilina Kennedy makes a credibly concerned asexual Mary Magdalene.
Paul Tazewell's costumes range from Matrix fascism for the soldiers, long leather coats and dreadknots for the high priests and earth-colored drapey jerseys for the believers. Jesus wears white and, not unexpectedly, is followed everywhere by light. In case we didn't get it, lines from the Bible flash across the back wall for that very big finale.
At a preview of the new Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar (* * ½ out of four), the pre-show announcement advised theatergoers not to worry about etiquette. Anyone who wished to open a noisy candy wrapper during the performance was welcome to do so: "The score will drown you out."
Indeed, "loud" might be the best word to describe the Stratford Shakespeare Festival-based production that opened Thursday at the Neil Simon Theatre— and not just sonically.
Rather than try to cut through the rock-operatic bombast of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music and Tim Rice's lyrics, director Des McAnuff revels in it. Though intermittently moving and seldom dull, this account of Jesus' final days on Earth isn't recommended to anyone with a low tolerance for pomp. Or a headache, for that matter.
Corrupt priests glower and seethe; their corrupted minions glitter and writhe in costumes by Paul Tazewell that can make the chorines in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert look understated. The more plainly dressed apostles, when not leaping through choreographer Lisa Shriver's more acrobatic routines, walk about wearing expressions of earnest consternation.
Vocally, Josh Young's Judas sets the tone. A gifted bari-tenor, Young nonetheless overdoes his character's angst. Paul Nolan's Jesus is more reserved at first, but by the second act, both men are crooning and screaming like American Idol contestants on steroids.
Marcus Nance's Caiaphas is less flamboyant but just as humorless; Chilina Kennedy's Mary Magdalene is equally stern but a more graceful singer. As Pontius Pilate, musical-theater veteran Tom Hewitt gives the most relaxed and nuanced performance. When he and Kennedy sing, you can appreciate the seductive banality of the melodies and words.