A commercial transfer of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” opened March 22 at the Neil Simon Theater on Broadway. After its world premiere last year at Stratford, the musical played a run at the La Jolla Playhouse prior to landing on the Main Stem. The following is Bob Verini’s review of the show during its run at La Jolla (Daily Variety, Dec. 5).
In Des McAnuff’s Broadway-bound revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” costume designer Paul Tazewell dresses the title character in solid white, as if offering a blank canvas on which the world is invited to paint for the next 2,000 years and beyond. The usefulness of the carpenter from Nazareth to serve everyone’s select purposes is the theme here, surely the most thoughtful and scintillating reading of the Webber/Rice rock opera since its 1969 recording.
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Under the overture, turbanned, black-coated riot police spin spears to whack raggedy proles. While this production was conceived in Stratford, Ontario long before the Wall Street protests, an inescapable sense of “Occupy Judea” creates immediacy, reinforced by a news ticker orienting us to time and place. Pharisees wielding pepper spray wouldn’t be a surprising sight.
Establishing the nation’s power vacuum opens the door (literally, at the rear of Robert Brill’s glittering palace of a set) to the answer to a prayer. Not the usual one-dimensional saintly/pallid Jesus, Paul Nolan offers intriguing levels of engagement and detachment, always leaving us once removed from understanding him in full. In that, he consciously evokes the remote superstars of our age: James Dean; John Lennon; Bowie and Jagger – all those enigmas on which we could eagerly project whatever we fancied.
It’s no different in Jerusalem, circa 33 A.D. An oppressed populace dances its need for Messiah in Lisa Shriver’s exciting choreography. The apostles sing their craving for a fighting commander. Temple elders Annas (weaselly Aaron Walpole) and Caiaphas (menacing basso Marcus Nance) must manufacture a scapegoat to keep Rome out of their hair, while Governor Pilate (a subtly nuanced Jeremy Kushnier) is plagued by existential doubt. Jesus becomes everybody’s obscure object of desire, exactly as he remains today.
Even King Herod (Bruce Dow), typically dismissable as a preening, queeny jester (“Walk across my swimming pool”), is granted gravitas. His vaudevilley Charleston is an amusingly rousing Vegas lounge act, but because this potentate is desperately seeking salvation, Dow is crushed to realize “You’re not the Lord/You’re nothing but a fraud!” An ordinarily contemptuous snap is invested with genuine terror.
Still more personal demands are placed by tormented Judas (Josh Young) and reviled Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy). McAnuff sets up an affectional triangle in which the Master’s mixed signals alternately seduce and perturb his dearest disciples, analogous to the spiritual crises described by sages from St. Augustine to Thomas Merton.
The helmer’s notion would actually work better if Jesus kept both at equal arm’s length. By isolating Judas yet granting Mary unfettered access to Jesus’ attention, McAnuff stacks the deck and reduces the tension. Kennedy lacks vulnerability anyway, and her “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” comes across as a mere announcement, not an anguished question. It’s a rare directorial misstep in an array of incidents marked by equal measures of theatricality and probing intelligence.
Concept comes to full fruition in the title number, usually carelessly tossed in just because A, it’s great; and B, it’s on the album. Here, McAnuff reincarnates Judas as a spangled Jimmy Swaggart, strutting atop a ramp jutting out over the auditorium. As the quietly dignified Jesus begins to speak at his side, the sizzling Young revs up the evangelical fervor – and suddenly we can’t hear a word of The Word; the gospel becomes an afterthought. This dramatization of man’s inhumanity to Jesus’ message becomes a memorable staging coup.
“Superstar” is a triumph of interpretation no less impressive than the helmer’s brilliantly multicultural reimagining of “The Wiz” in 2006, which unfortunately never made it out of La Jolla. Mischievous original helmer Tom O’Horgan announced, “I want to shake ’em up,” but McAnuff wants to make ’em think and feel. What premiered in Gotham in 1971 as a campy mess will shortly return as a smart and moving spectacle.