If Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the musicals with the most predictable endings, why have audiences remained in its thrall for so many years? Why, in fact, do audiences continue to hunger so for a good Passion play in the first place? In the last decade, to name only two notable dramatic examples, playwright Sarah Ruhl has reexamined the Christ story throughout history by focusing on the Passions in the times of Queen Elizabeth I, Hitler, and Reagan and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ caused a stir amongst moviegoers and critics alike for its violent portrayal of the crucifixion.
Despite the fact that we all know how Jesus will end up, it’s the telling of the tale that continues to compel. If every story has been told before, Jesus’ must be one of those most frequently depicted and examined. In keeping with this level of fascination, it’s hardly surprising that the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, its score originally released as a chart-topping concept album in 1969 before making its tepid Broadway premiere in 1971 with direction by Hair‘s Tom O’Horgan, has captivated audiences over the course of the last forty-plus years.
While the other major Jesus musical, Godspell, is infused with a comforting church-approved pop lilt, however, Superstar, while still mostly a reverent thing, meshed rather less well with religious groups upon its premiere because of its attempts to humanize rather than deify Christ. Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Superstar shifts the typical Passion play perspective away from Jesus and hands the narrative reins over to Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer, as a means of heightening the drama of the piece and focusing on the triangular dynamic between Jesus, Judas, and the reformed prostitute Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ most devoted disciples.
The current Broadway production, helmed by Jersey Boys director Des McAnuff, emphasizes this dynamic and adds modern technical elements to make for an exciting new version of an enduring classic. Foremost here is the musical’s throbbing rock score, which includes recognizable songs like “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Heaven on Their Minds.”
What this production reminds us of is the Lloyd Webber that came before recent flops like Love Never Dies (it really never did) and The Woman in White (which left most audiences begging for a splash of color beyond its manic video game-style projected sets). Before he was an attention-bloated media mogul, theatre owner, impresario, and reality TV judge, he was an upstart pop-driven crowd-pleaser. Aha – there’s a reason we keep coming back for more Lloyd Webber: he baited us with these early crack-laced mega-melodies.
Of the trio of shows that Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaborated to write, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar are back on Broadway this season (their other baby is Joseph…). This production, which premiered at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival last year and subsequently played at La Jolla Playhouse in California, features sleek direction by McAnuff, enhanced by simple, dynamic sets by Robert Brill and video design by Sean Niewenhuis, who makes use of choreography-coordinated LED sequences and scrolling text to emphasize the compact timeline during the run-up to Christ’s final days.
Outfitted in faux-modern dress, replete with drapey garbs featuring Urban Outfitters-style slits and diagonal cuts (and even a flashy 90s-style double-breasted linen coat for Jesus), it’s hard to take this Superstar entirely seriously. It’s a piece of ingeniously-constructed Passion-pop, featuring a number of clever anachronistic lyrics but also clunkers like “Jesus, I am with you / Touch me, touch me, Jesus.” It’s not a show that demands seriousness though. As such, it’s hard to resist the sugary sweet propulsion of it all. As directed with streamline precision by director Des McAnuff, this production keeps the running time down to a lean 2 hours including an intermission.
Paul Nolan makes a humbly endearing if occasionally bland Jesus (his vocal prowess more than makes up for his emotional heterogeneity). Chilina Kennedy is a sweet, smooth-voiced presence as Mary Magdalene, and Jeremy Kushnier, who played the role of Judas at the performance I attended (usually played by Josh Young) is possessing of a powerful rock belt despite the fact that his portrayal of Iscariot’s anger occasionally outweighs the complexities of his emotional struggle in the show’s final half.
The cast members making the most impact are Tom Hewitt, whose sensitive, well-sung portrayal of Pontius Pilate adds gravitas and Bruce Dow, whose camp take on King Herod provides some much-needed levity as Christ’s final hours approach.
When all is said and done, McAnuff’s new take on the greatest story ever told is a splashy, entertaining one. If there’s hardly anything inventive onstage at the Neil Simon Theatre, those looking to reexamine the appeal of one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best scores interpreted by a fine cast won’t be disappointed.