O.M.G. Jesus Christ is back on Broadway!
While the above statement may appear irreverent – I’ll admit, I cringed while typing it – it is an appropriate representation of the sentiment depicted in the new revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, currently playing at the Neil Simon Theater. Directed by Des McAnuff, this production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s play is a bright, bold and, while it does exaggerate and go overboard at times, a moving production of the musical.
Weber and Rice’s score, which follows Christ through his last days on Earth before the crucifixion, was first recorded as a concept album before premiering on Broadway in 1971. The show was extremely controversial, banned by the BBC for being sacrilegious and inspiring people to protest outside the theater. Lyricist Tim Rice was quoted as saying “It happens that we don’t see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place,” a comment considered blasphemous by many . The show was also criticized for being anti-Semetic due to its portrayal of the political events leading up to the Crucifixion.
The Crucifixion is the culminating event of the play, but the heart of Jesus Christ Superstar is the relationships between men and women. The show portrays Jesus as a mortal man with a suggestively romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene who suffers an act of betrayal by his best friend. And while McAnuff’s production, which was first seen at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, is packed with flashy lights and wailing guitar riffs, it is the inherently human aspects of the show which cause it to succeed. And this production, with a strong, talented cast, capably portrays those moments.
Paul Nolan plays the titular character with a serene confidence. Calm and composed, his deep blue eyes are constantly gazing beyond the audience to – or beyond – the back of the theater. He capably depicts the joy and peace his character brings so many, but the knowledge of what awaits him adds an edge of sorrow to his character as well as a glimpse of the human exhaustion that Jesus was feeling. (After all, no matter where he goes, someone wants something from him.) Nolan gives Jesus a textured vulnerability of sadness as well as anger, and his expressive voice is well-suited to the range of emotion Jesus expresses throughout the show. His rendition of “Gethsemane” is intensely moving.
As Jesus’ friend who famously betrays him with a kiss, Josh Young gives a compelling, captivating performance. His rich, deep voice and vibrantly dark eyes portray the intensely conflicting emotions Judas endures throughout the show, with love, hate, envy and admiration being just a few. Young displays a wide range of vocal talent, ranging from the quietly tormented opening notes of “Heaven on their Minds” to the rock/Gospel style titular number.
In sharp contrast to the flashy, loud rock-style songs, Chilina Kennedy is a charming Mary Magdalene. She is in almost every scene with Jesus, following him one step behind if not right by his side, serving as a source of reassurance and comfort to the man. (Just in case that wasn’t clear, she sings a song titled, “Everything’s All Right” to him while bathing his face and feet.) Kennedy’s clear, lovely voice is well-suited to Mary’s songs, especially “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” in which she laments the impossibility of being in love with a celebrity like Jesus.
It is not only Mary who is in love with Jesus, however, in this production. And while her relationship with Jesus is intriguing, it is the relationship between Jesus and Judas that is the most fascinating. McAnuff emphasizes the possibility of a homoerotic relationship between Judas and Jesus, with lingering touches and looks between the two men. In many scenes, Judas stands to the side on one of the elevated platforms or perched at the top of a ladder, intently watching Jesus. And the friendship between himself and Mary is apparent; in many scenes they stand together watching Jesus with their arms around each other. The love triangle between the three is intriguing; one wonders if Judas betrayed Jesus in spite of, or because of, his feelings.
While the set serves the action of the set well, the metallic, two-tiered set by Robert Brill is too industrial and impersonal for this show. The arena-rock atmosphere is counter intuitive to the intimate feeling the cast inspires. It is also contradictory to the high-energy, fight-inspired choreography by Lisa Shriver, which effectively portrays the political unrest of the time.
The uneasy political atmosphere is set in motion by the politicians who orchestrate Jesus’ death, all of whom give strong performances. Marcus Nance’s bass is well-suited for high priest Caiaphas and Bruce Dow gives an especially entertaining performance as King Herod. Demanding that Christ “prove to me that you’re so cool/walk across my swimming pool,” he makes Herod a self-loathing, attention-hogging, contemptuous child. Tom Hewitt is outstanding as Pilate, giving a remarkably textured performance that depicts so much in only 20 minutes onstage. Lee Siegel’s Simon and Mike Nadajewski’s Peter are also impressive.
First written and performed more than 40 years ago, the timeliness of Jesus Christ Superstar has been called into question by many. Perhaps that is why the show stresses its timelessness so heavily; it opens with the year “2012” flashing across the a large screen and rapidly scrolling back to the year Jesus died. The electric ticker features into many scenes, informing the audience of the day and location of each scene. While this is helpful to those not familiar with the events of story, it distracts from what is happening onstage, especially during the show’s title number. The costumes also serve to stress the timelessness of the play. Paul Tazewell’s costumes also enhance the lack of time – the Romans are clad in black leather jackets, while Jesus’ followers outfits could be worn by Williamsburg hipsters of today.
The real part of Jesus Christ Superstar that truly resonates with today’s audience is the fickleness of hero worship so apparent in the crowds that follow Jesus. Fervent followers of him one day, they beg for his death the next. The effect of group-think on Pilate is especially apparent, thanks to Hewitt’s stellar performance. Equally unsettling is the brevity of their attention; one day they are cheering him on, and the next they are pleading for his death.
This short attention span is all too familiar with today’s audience, many of whom were texting on their smartphones throughout the performance. While moments of McAnuff’s production are overdone and overblown, the core of Jesus Christ Superstar remains – and resonates.