Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jesus Christ Superstar at the Neil Simon Theatre

"Every time I look at you I don't understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand."

At its basic level, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is a passion play.    The last week of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been a part of theater since the middle ages.    This sung-through version uses music styles popular in the early 1970's with the somewhat cynical modern commentary of that era in the libretto. This revival originated in the summer of 2011 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada with a detour to La Jolla, California before arriving at the Neil Simon Theatre.  

What is it about this particular production that resonated enough with audiences to merit a transfer to Broadway?   While this production has flaws, Des McAnuff has created an interesting modern scenario as the backdrop for his version of the passion of the Christ.   The problem is that it is all surface flash and contains very little substance.   The disciples of Christ seem reminiscent of the burgeoning protest movements of the past year.  Occupy Jerusalem springs to mind.    The grim steel set designed by Robert Brill coupled with Paul Tazewell's mostly grungy costumes evoke the atmosphere of a small cult worshipping and hiding from the authorities.    Mr. Brill also provides a New York-style electronic ticker that counts down backwards from 2012 that provides a silent progression of the days leading to the crucifixion.  Director Mr. McAnuff keeps the pace brisk with the entire production including intermission coming in at two hours, a welcome change from the length of most Broadway musicals.  

Yet, there are problems.   Mr. McAnuff has chosen to focus the drama on the triangle of Jesus and his most trusted followers, Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene.    This is justified in the libretto, yet as a result it is never clear why Jesus is such a threat to the Roman and Jewish authority figures.   The decision to depict "The Temple"as peopled with leather bound dancers reminiscent of a go-go club seems an old and tired cliche copied from the 1973 film.  There must be other ways to show the corruption of this house of prayer.  Jesus' tantrum lacks an emotional punch that would force the status quo to destroy the burgeoning Christian movement.

The rock opera is sung expertly by the entire cast.   Tom Hewitt captures Pontius Pilate's dilemma towards how to deal with the demands for Jesus' death, yet his final decision to put him to death does not seem inevitable and lacks the sorrow written for the part.   Marcus Nance's (Caiaphas) liquid bass voice resonates the threat and Aaron Walpole's (Annas) tenor the alarm of the Jewish priests threatened by Jesus' exposure of the corruption of the faith, yet the staging does not match the vocals in portraying that threat visually.

Bruce Dow gives an interesting take on King Herod.  His song in act two is normally played strictly for laughs, the only levity in the heavy drama leading to the crucifixion.   Mr. Dow's Herod's wit is biting and cynical in his demands for miracles.   Of the villain authority figures Herod is the only one who genuinely seems disturbed by Jesus and his followers.

Two of the three members of the central triangle of Jesus, Mary and Judas sing their roles well, but do not bring any true passion to their acting.   Paul Nolan certainly looks beatific,yet for most of the performance he does not deliver any charisma.    Mr Nolan succeeds in giving Jesus strong emotional depth during the act two "Gethsemane" where Jesus confronts God over his pending fate, but the rest of the performance seems to be going through the motions.   It is difficult to see why this Jesus attracts a large following.

Chilina Kennedy is a beautiful young woman with a very beautiful voice.  Unfortunately Mary Magdalene is a woman of the world with a sordid past.   Her Mary is Jesus' helpmeet and chaste love, but in her most famous song, "I Don't Know How To Love Him", Miss Kennedy lacks the anguish of a fallen woman drawn to a saintly man.

Josh Young was absent due to illness at the performance I attended.   However his understudy Jeremy Kushnier gave a worthy performance as the right hand man betrayer of Jesus.   Mr. Kushnier telegraphed Judas' growing unease over the increasing prominence of Jesus'.  His genuine torment over the betrayal and his growing realization that he has been a pawn in God's plan grew throughout the performance.   From what I understand Mr. Young is equally brilliant in the role and the production is worth seeing for this pivotal performance.

Jesus Christ Superstar is being performed at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway.   For tickets please visit


  1. Jesus Christ Superstar received a Drama League nomination for Distinguished Revival of a Musical.

  2. Jesus Christ Superstar received two Drama Desk nominations - revival of a musical and sound design in a musical.

  3. Jesus Christ Superstar received two 2012 Tony Award Nominations - Best Revival of a Musical and Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical - Josh Young.