Rocking revival of “Superstar” a bracing blast from the past
Many forget that when “Jesus Christ Superstar” premiered on Broadway in 1971, certain religious groups cried “blasphemy!”
Reimaging Christ as a waif-like celebrity who was not the son of God but simply the right dude at the right time and the right place and telling his story through Satan’s music (rock and roll) were highly offensive. Focusing on a combustible love triangle among Christ, Judas, and Mary Magdalene, found nowhere in the Bible, was deemed disgusting. Infusing the show with contemporary hippie vernacular only added insult to injury.
Despite the kerfuffle, the gospel-tinged rock opera, with catchy music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, struck a chord with audiences. But in resurrecting the work for today’s tastes, the creators were challenged with how to make the 40-year old show feel fresh. They wanted to avoid the stale period-piece trap; they also didn’t want to go the ironic camp route (the show had plenty of that already).
Well, they hit on a brilliant formula, setting the last week in the life of “JC,” as his adoring fans dubbed him, in the sort of futuristic, industrial landscape found in a Mad Max movie. The ingenious set, by Robert Brill, is a multi-level steel grid with platforms and stairways, constantly being reconfigured. The structure is punctuated by one of those zipping news tickers made of tiny flashing light bulbs that announces the dates and places of the scenes.
The dated flower-child vibe is decidedly tamped down in favor of a meticulously flashy, modern sensibility. There have been no reports, by the way, of protests outside the Neil Simon Theatre.
None of this would work were it not for Des McAnuff’s savvy direction. The set pieces, largely powered by humans, move seamlessly. The lighting, by Howell Binkley, is breathtaking and perfectly timed. And the sound design is loud and crisp, showcasing the classic, rabble-rousing score to full advantage. Miraculously, I could discern every lyric.
The two-hour show, packed with crowd-pleasing choreography by Lisa Shriver, moves at such a fast clip that sometimes there’s no pause to allow applause after a big number.
Make no mistake, the original libretto has flaws that can’t be glossed over with flashy stagecraft. Despite gripping performances by a vibrant, multicultural cast, I rarely felt a strong emotional connection to the characters. I wanted more soul.
By design, Paul Nolan’s Jesus Christ comes across as serenely detached. Wearing a plain white tunic, he is the blank slate upon which others project their dreams and disappointments. Only in a few peak moments of the second act did he register as charismatic enough to earn the title King of the Jews.
Chilina Kennedy, who happens to resemble a not-so-angry Alanis Morissette, brings out the rough edges of Mary, nicely articulating her ambivalence toward her lover/ savior. Kennedy’s tender rendition of the hit song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” does not disappoint.
On the night I attended, vocal powerhouse Jeremy Kushnier played the role of Judas, the anguished disciple who betrayed his bud by turning him over to the authorities with a kiss. (Josh Young, who normally plays the role, was sidelined by illness.)
The oddly reverential tone of the piece is torn asunder with “Herod’s Song,” when the king gleefully humiliates and discredits Jesus after the mob has turned against him. Bruce Dow nails the role of the chubby, supercilious Judean ruler. The number’s out-of-left-field, overblown mock-cabaret style reminded me of the “Loveland” sequence in Sondheim’s “Follies,” which, coincidentally or not, opened on Broadway that same year.
Greatly enhancing the outré impact of this exhilarating, top-notch production are Paul Tazewell’s stylish, anachronistic costumes, a hodge-podge of creations seemingly borrowed from Banana Republic, Patricia Field, and Leatherman.
In fact, with all that heavy metal, leather, wailing, flogging, and those gyrating muscled Roman soldiers, I couldn’t help thinking of the Black Party, the S&M extravaganza held annually each spring at Roseland Ballroom, just across the street.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
Neil Simon Theatre
250 W. 52nd St.
Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.;
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.