The thing that stays with you longest after experiencing Jesus Christ Superstar is the ringing in your ears. It’s loud. Really really loud, to the extent that the usual “unwrap your candy now” warning is tempered with a laugh line, “Unwrap your candy at any time; the score will drown it out.” Bring earplugs.
Rock Opera hype aside, this show requires some unique demands from the singers. The score is extremely difficult, and at times, lyrics are shrieked, not sung. The result is a lot of clenched fist acting, and it gets tiring to watch; I can’t even imagine how exhausting it must be to perform.
Part of the problem is that what was once unique is now commonplace. Jesus Christ Superstar first opened on Broadway October 12, 1971. It ran 711 performances, to generally mixed reviews. Rockers loved it, both Christian and Jewish groups, not so much. Andrew Lloyd Webber won a Drama Desk Award as “Most Promising Composer.” There was a Broadway revival in 2000, and the show has been produced around the world. The current offering, directed by Des McAnuff, comes from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The question must be asked, why bring it back to Broadway now?
Modern day chrome ladders and scaffolding give the production an updated look, but when we hear “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” and the show’s anthem, we feel nostalgic. These are oldies, and nothing can bring back the impact they had on audiences originally. The members of the Sanhedrin are dressed in long leather coats. A timeline is announced through Times Square style light banners displayed against back and side walls. Suggestively dressed men, as well as women, cavort in the temple offering to sell whatever the customer wants. But the show feels as old and dated as the off-white shmata in which Jesus is wrapped, complete with a fetching tuft of chest hair peeking out above what looks to be a well-worn undershirt.
Paul Nolan (above) brings to the role of Jesus a kind of petulant weariness. His voice soars to acrobatic heights in the second act, but by then, we forget why we care about this supposed King among men. By starting out as angry and defeated, the actor’s portrayal cheats us of the opportunity to see the grandeur and the power that attracts disciples, lepers, and ordinary citizens. We’re told by the lyrics that he scares his followers. Why? There’s nothing larger than life here, and nothing particularly to adore, either. This is a spoiled rock star Jesus, ready to trash his hotel room because someone forgot to chill the champagne in his suite.
Whether or not you believe that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were romantically involved, the fact that there’s no chemistry between the lead characters leaves dead air where there should be electricity. Chilina Kennedy (above) brings a strange antiseptic quality to a woman who’s called a whore, and who confesses to having had so many men, in oh so many ways. Shouldn’t the Magdalene be, at the least, voluptuous? If the actress playing her lacks the necessary accoutrements, at least give her a fighting chance by not dressing her in a sloppy, floppy gold number which accentuates how rangy she is. Her voice is all but drowned out by the orchestra; her big number should bring down the house. Here, it doesn’t.
In the performance I saw, Judas was played by Jeremy Kushnier, who did a more than serviceable job. Next time you see that an understudy has taken over a major role, don’t ask for your money back. You will very often be surprised by a truly talented performer like Kushnier.
It’s in no way his fault that the relationship among Judas, Jesus, and Mary is muddled. Jealousy? Homo-erotic feelings? Why do Judas and Mary, who seem to be rivals, walk out arm-in-arm? Kushnier is especially vibrant in his last scene, when he is apparently resurrected in a shiny electric blue suit with spangly T-shirt, and matching shoes. A special personal thanks to the person who decided that this Judas wouldn’t have the traditional red hair.
Praise is also due to Tom Hewitt (above), as Pontius Pilate. You don’t have to read his program bio to know that this is a Broadway vet. His diction and phrasing are perfect. The only flaw in his performance is that he makes us yearn for more scenes with this scary, despicable Roman. When he’s on stage, he quite simply takes over the show.
The ensemble is superb; each member has created a unique character, and the flips and energetic dance moves they bring add a flash and liveliness to an otherwise rather lackluster production. I love the fact that this is a fully integrated chorus; the word of Jesus is universal. This makes all the more disorientating the fact that at times, clearly distinguishable apostles become part of the jeering mob, and even perform pelvic thrusts in the Temple.
I like the idea that Mary Magdalene takes part in the Last Supper; Da Vinci would kvell in his code. The reference to Judea being an occupied country is still timely. I also appreciate the more compassionate view of Judas as being less inherently evil, more troubled. But driving home with my companion, who’s a devout Evangelical Christian, I was made aware of the fact that the reason Jesus died was never really professed; and by totally side-stepping the Resurrection, the truly Christian meaning of the crucifixion is completely subverted. It’s wonderful that we have a theatrical event that leads to lively theological discussion, but vexing to realize that the show itself may be missing the whole point. Is it offensive to Christians? Only if this is the sole view of the faith with which an audience member has contact.
Is it really worth remounting this show yet again? That’s up for debate. I’d so much rather see a fresh and original idea on the boards. Tom Hewitt starring in Pontius Pilate, The Musical? Stranger things have happened.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Jesus Christ Superstar
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street.
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.