Review: Jesus Christ Superstar
|Paul Nolan as Jesus and the cast during the title number of Jesus Christ Superstar|
*Note: At the performance I attended, the role of Judas was performed by understudy Jeremy Kushnier. This review reflects his portrayal.*
Like many of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous works, Jesus Christ Superstar is plagued by a host of problems including poor plotting, underwritten characters, and repetitive music. And just like Webber’s other currently running Broadway musicals (Phantom of the Opera, Evita), the latest revival of his biblically-inspired rock opera is saved by a game cast and stellar direction, resulting in a highly entertaining if not emotionally involving night of theatre.
Des McAnuff’s production, which originated at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada last summer, is a marvel of fluidity and invention. Set in a post-apocalyptic future-past, this Superstar starts with a bang and doesn’t let up, as one scene melts into the next so quickly that you are afraid to applaud for fear of missing something important. This speed definitely works in the show’s favor, as a slower pace would give the audience more time to notice its many structural flaws and the awkward lyrics by Tim Rice. The pacing also provides tension to a story with such a well-known outcome (in case you didn’t know, Jesus dies at the end).
McAnuff’s staging is helped immensely by Robert Brill’s wonderful scenic design. What initially appears to be no more than a metal catwalk and two staircases proves remarkably versatile, concealing a multitude of entrances and exits through which McAnuff can deploy his high energy cast. And the group numbers are given an extra jolt via Lisa Shriver’s athletic choreography, bringing an unexpected visual edge to the staging. No matter what your opinion of the material, McAnuff and his team ensure that there’s always something interesting to look at. Paul Tazewell’s tastefully revealing costumes and Howell Binkley’s rock concert lighting only add to the visual wow factor.
It all makes you wish the cast was at the same level as the production team. Make no mistake, this is a very accomplished group of actors, highly committed to their roles and blessed with vocal chords of steel. While they don’t always make Webber’s insanely difficult score sound easy, they do consistently hit their money notes without crossing the line from singing to screaming. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the thinness of the writing, most of the named characters struggle to come across as fully formed human beings.
Of the principal trio, Jeremy Kushnier’s Judas comes across the best, a feat that’s all the more remarkable given that Kushnier is the understudy. He handles his role’s vocal demands with aplomb, and does an excellent job of conveying Judas’ conflicted feelings about Jesus. When Judas goes to the high priests to betray Jesus, Kushnier makes clear it is a genuinely hard decision for him, and that he isn’t convinced he made the right choice even after the deal is done.
As Jesus, Paul Nolan certainly looks the part, as if a Renaissance painting of the Messiah came to life and stepped onto the Neil Simon Theatre stage. Nolan has a stylistically perfect rock tenor and a piercing stare, but his characterization rarely evolves beyond anguished looks and occasional outbursts of anger. And Chilina Kennedy lacks the grittiness necessary to portray prostitute Mary Magdalene, although she certainly sells her devotion to Jesus. One of the most intriguing aspects of this production, obviously helped by McAnuff’s direction, is its focus on the pseudo-love triangle between Mary, Jesus, and Judas. By increasing Mary’s stagetime, McAnuff adds jealousy to the list of Judas’ motives, since he is clearly unhappy with having his place in Jesus’ affections usurped by her.
The rest of the principals all turn in fine performances, with Bruce Dow’s scenery chewing during “Herod’s Song” a particular highlight. Yet in many ways, the most surprisingly accomplished acting in the show comes from the twenty gifted young performers who make up Superstar’s ensemble. McAnuff has clearly encouraged this group to develop individualized characters rather than perfectly mimic one another, and the choices lends more interest to the musically and lyrically repetitive group numbers while simultaneously helping to generate much of the show’s propulsive energy.
If you aren’t a fan of Lloyd Webber’s work (and this reviewer is not), Jesus Christ Superstar probably isn’t going to convert you. But this production will leave you with a begrudging appreciation for his talents as a songsmith and a better understand of why his shows have remained so popular for so long. Webber himself has called this revival “the best Superstar [he’s] ever seen,” and it’s very hard to argue with the dynamic energy on display. McAnuff and company have turned what could easily have been a painful two-hour assault on the senses into a surprisingly engaging piece of entertainment, and a great option for those who prefer their musicals with a rock-infused edge.