New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"Jesus Christ Superstar"
Neil Simon Theatre, Broadway

“Jesus Christ Superstar” has returned to the Broadway stage with a vengeance. This revival of the 1971 Andrew Lloyd-Webber/Tim Rice rock opera is more than a revival. Transferred from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada practically intact, and still under Des McAnuff’s direction, the current version relies heavily on rock-style bombast. Its state-of-the-art high-tech treatment offers flashing signs, numerous catwalks, rolling platform staircases, and shrieking electric guitars. It is “Jesus Christ Superstar” brought into the 21st century. With costumes from then and now, and with overhead signs that roll back time from 2012 to 33, the story spans the ages.

Yet it is still the same “Jesus Christ Superstar”—wildly irreverent, but mostly following the Gospel according to Mark. Can one say it is anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, anti-religious? The writers do take liberties with the Temple scene, in which Jesus drives out the money-changers. They have turned it into an orgy, complete with harlots and drunken celebrants. But one must remember that it was the work of two youthful writers, admittedly brilliant, yet determined to shock with their wise-guy style, modern slang and pop music.

Depicting the last seven days of Jesus, “Superstar” focuses, not on Jesus, but his betrayer, Judas Iscariot. Judas, torn by inner conflict, makes for an absorbing character study. As Judas sees Jesus, he has become too ambitious and must be put down. Jesus is no longer “just a man,” a gifted preacher, but the self-proclaimed son of God. Judas thus weighs his personal love for Jesus against his concern for the good of the people, calling to mind a parallel tale—that of Brutus and Julius Caesar.

It is certainly a meaty role. And Josh Young, in that role, gives a towering performance. He creates a character of passion and need, managing to convey his inner turmoil, his mix of all-too-human good and evil. Fortunately, he has a rich, powerful voice which transcends the blasting rock music of this sung-through show.

But the other two leads—Paul Nolan as Jesus and Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene are disappointingly bland. Nolan portrays Jesus as a quiet figure caught in the midst of turmoil. Despite a lofty dignity, he comes across as a tabula rasa, open to others’ interpretations. Where is the charisma which the founder of one of the world’s great religions would surely have had?

Kennedy, too, is much too bland, as she administers to Jesus and hovers about him. She sings pleasantly, though other Mary Magdalenes of past “Superstar” shows have put more fire into the powerful “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and her other pieces.

But two other performers truly capture the spirit of “Superstar.” Bruce Dow is a hilarious Herod, as he camps through his big scene, inviting Jesus to “walk upon my swimming pool.” And Tom Hewitt, always a fine actor, gives a dignity and believability to his Pontius Pilate.

In all, this “Jesus Christ Superstar” must be viewed with mixed feelings. Though carried to the ultimate in high-tech production, it lacks the depth and poignancy of earlier productions. But we can always replay tapes of those shows which live on in our memories.

--Irene Backalenick
--Mar. 30, 2012

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