Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” is remembered with deep affection by a wide cross-section of Americans of a certain age, even many who’ve never been avid theatergoers. Fans who formed a bond with the show in their youth will be happily flocking to the huge Ford Center to see how the new Broadway revival measures up against memories of the popular album or movie versions — or the time they played Disciple No. 6 at summer camp, to such ego-boosting eclat. They may be scandalized or delighted by Gale Edwards’ East-Village-apocalypse production, but they’ll be hearing the score through a pleasant filter of nostalgia.
On the other hand, those whose reactions are not tinted by remembered affection may be left mystified — or even stupefied. A show that was groundbreaking 30 years ago, when the Broadway musical was just beginning to shake off the dust of decades of tradition, looks less momentous, and not a little ridiculous, today. Lloyd Webber’s infectious melodies still grab and hold the attention, but the ersatz rock idiom he employed here (and soon abandoned) is dangerously dated, despite Lloyd Webber’s new orchestrations, and Rice’s preposterous lyrics induce titters with exhausting regularity.
Perhaps sensing that the merits of the show might not beam too brightly in a production redolent of the aesthetically distant early ’70s, the revival yanks the show firmly into the 21st century. Rough-hewn tunics and Holy Land vistas give way to contemporary equivalents: The disciples sport costume designer Roger Kirk’s colorfully grungy urban gear on their gym-sculpted bodies. (Jesus stands out dramatically in his white linen tunics and open-toed sandals — and those sandals are taking martyrdom rather far, since everyone else sports thick-soled combat boots.) Christ’s carefully multicultural assortment of followers cavort against a backdrop of graffiti under a structure resembling a concrete overpass in Peter J. Davison’s rather glum, overblown conception. The production is aggressively with-it, eager to convince us with every pierced nose and blue buzz cut that the show is as vitally “now” as “Rent.”
A bookless “rock opera,” which was born as an album before being staged on Broadway in 1971 (720 perfs) and London in 1972 (eight years), “Jesus Christ Superstar” has little dramatic progress or characterization — it’s really just a series of musical vignettes from the last days of Christ.
The British Glenn Carter plays JC, as he is sometimes embarrassingly referred to in Rice’s lyrics. He spends the first half of the show beaming beatifically at some distant point (his future kingdom, or the Ford Center balcony?), arms raised in vague gestures of benediction. The second half he spends less happily, of course, being tortured repeatedly and … well, you know. Carter sings and submits with commitment, displaying a limber, reedy falsetto that alternates with a supple wail during more anguished moments.
JC’s calm benevolence is in contrast with the whiny angst of Judas Iscariot, who is played by the charismatic Tony Vincent. Vincent, too, must wail mightily at the climax of his songs, and he does it with a fervent gusto that never flags , despite his vocally lengthy role. With a white, spiky mane and various sexy-grungy getups, Vincent looks like he walked in from “Rent” (in fact he did, his bio says), and makes a dangerously appealing bad guy.
There are plenty of less appealing ones around, of course. Christ’s persecutor Caiaphas (Frederick B. Owens) and his minions are got up like SS Storm Trooper action figures, in black floor-length jackets and rubber chest pieces, and they sing in various audibly evil vocal registers. Paul Kandel, as King Herod, enacts the show’s big gesture toward camp, arriving accompanied by a facsimile of the Supremes, himself made up to look like the creepy uncle of Alan Cumming’s emcee in Broadway’s “Cabaret.” A big marquee with lights blinking Herod’s name descends, along with a TV variety-show backdrop and more dancers. It’s the production’s major extravaganza, although the Crucifixion has some splashy moments, too, including a giant cross constructed of lights that descends to blind the audience for a moment or two.
“I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” Mary Magdalene’s mournful ballad, was the show’s big hit, and its enduringly pretty melody is sung here with soulful flourishes by Maya Days. There are indeed catchy riffs aplenty in Lloyd Webber’s score, but every time a comprehensible lyric fights its way through Richard Ryan’s ear-splitting sound design, you immediately regret it.
It cannot have been easy to find plausible colloquial language for these legendary figures, of course, and obviously they can’t sing the King James Bible , but the once-hip flipness of Rice’s lyrics now registers mortifyingly: “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle/Knew that I would make it if I tried/Then when we retire we can write the Gospels/So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died,” runs the chorus from “The Last Supper.”
Jesus, too, seems to have an eye trained rather alarmingly on future fame, demanding in “Gethsemane,” “Why should I die? Would I be more noticed than I ever was before? … Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?” He is, in a way, a man for our image-obsessed age, to which Edwards later makes a heavy nod in a garish MTV-video sequence, with Judas as rock star.
JC needn’t have worried so much about posterity. Time has been very good to the man, but the same can not necessarily be said for “Jesus Christ Superstar.”