Jesus Christ Superstar
Having gone to a good school, lived in New York for decades, hung around the "right" circles, read the "right" periodicals, even summered in the "right" resort, I feel I've earned my chops as one of the theater cognoscenti. And, as is true for any self-proclaimed theater snob, hatred of all things concocted by Baron Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice is as necessary to the worldview as, say, adoration of Sondheim.
So I walked into the Neil Simon Theater for "Jesus Christ Superstar" all smug in my attitude that this would be one of those musicals I love to hate: over-the-top, pretentious, pseudo-hippy soft-rock ballads intermixed with Wagnerian-lite leitmotifs and stolen Puccini melodies.
Well, as soon as the first note came pounding out of that high-amped electric guitar, the riff that develops as "B flat/A/G flat", you could feel it. It's not something you feel very often in the very best of times; in our present barely-bronze age of the Broadway musical, it comes very rarely, if at all.
But there it was: That surge of electricity from the audience, that frisson that this was special.
That should probably not have come as a big surprise to me. Along with "Godspell," that other modern hippie take on the Passion playing a few blocks away (Jesus is having a very big moment on the Great White Way these days; he'd better up his representation), this has proven to be one of the mainstays of earnest school musical groups everywhere.
Interestingly, the two shows opened in 1971 within a few months of each other. But in other ways, they couldn't be more different. "Godspell" portrays Jesus' mission and relationship with the apostles very much as a hippie commune. It's all about love, love, love and very gentle.
If "Godspell" came out of the hippie-influenced "Jesus Movement," "Superstar" arose from the ceaseless ferment of the day. This is less the sappy, all-loving good shepherd than the fire-breathing revolutionary who warned, "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother."
The music of each show very much reflects their respective theologies. Compare the gentle, lulling "Day by Day" to the angry, confrontational "Simon Zealots/Poor Jerusalem." The Jesus of "Godspell" gives out flowers and caresses little children. "Superstar" is no prince of peace.
What makes it work is Lloyd Webber's absolutely terrific score and vividly drawn personalities. Director Des McAnuff and his talented cast manage to convey the profound dread that lies at the bottom of the mystery of Christ's redemption.
McAnuff has directed this rock opera within an inch. Except in the quietest moments, when Mary Magdalene sings her gorgeous "Everything's Alright" and the show's signature ballad, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," the stage is alive with gyrating apostles, writhing prostitutes, fascistic Roman soldiers, and those brooding, scheming temple officials who plot Jesus' demise.
It's the latter group that landed the original production its major controversy. McAnuff stays close to the show's template, which unapologetically presents the Pharisees, priests and scribes as dangerously close to anti-Semitic stereotypes. This remains as troubling in 2012 as it was in 1971.
But it's true to at least some interpretations of the Gospel accounts of the Passion, and anyway, it's all too believable when someone with the musical gravitas of Marcus Nance, whose basso is so profundo it telegraphs ill intent, is the scheming High Priest Caiaphas.
In the pivotal role of Judas, who is given a lot more business here than in the Gospels (he's effectively Che to Jesus' Evita), I saw an understudy, so I can't comment on Jeremy Kushner. But Matthew Rossoff was terrific, both theatrically and vocally.
As for Jesus and Mary Magdalene, until his big Second Act opener, I got the feeling that Paul Nolan was chosen as much for his resemblance to those ubiquitous church calendars that depict Jesus as a super-Aryan with curly blond hair.
Chilina Kennedy delivers her ballads in a voice like a bell, but I would have preferred a fierier Magdalene; this one is a little too passive, too delicate. That said, they're both dynamic stage presences.
The only time the shows goes off the rails is in the Second Act scene when Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, hands Jesus over to Herod, the decadent Roman puppet king of Galilee. Aside from the fact that this never occurs in the New Testament (the only place where lyricist Tim Rice varies from text), the scene is jarringly out of place amidst the harrowing scenes of Christ's tribulation. It's almost as though you can see the wheels turning in Lloyd Webber's mind: "We really need a carnival number to break up the tension."
That's the only misstep (and McAnuff could hardly have expected the show's creators to cut-and-paste such a familiar work for one revival). The other weak link is Rice's lyrics. Lulling, lovely and nearly profound in places, in too many others the rhyming is way too simplistic, as are the sentiments.
Here are the Apostles at the Last Supper: "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." If this is parody, it was played straight. Anyway, it's ridiculous.
The set design emphasizes the eternality of the story, with a few contemporary nods. The stage opens on an angry ragtag group singing about injustice with one of the onstage rolling chyrons announcing in giant letters "2012." There are a few other places where parallels to Occupy Wall Street-type discontent with the status quo becomes a point of reference.
The Times Square news-ribbon-type chyron that runs across the judge is used judiciously until the very end, when someone had the bright idea of flashing long passages from the New Testament across so fast they're unreadable, like a Jenny Holzer installation gone haywire.
The costumes are all over the place. Most characters resemble First Century garb, at least as it has become known from Western art. But then, the scene in which Jesus upsets the money-changers' tables in the temple becomes a disco-revival theme night, with the women shaking their moneymakers in shimmery glitter gowns, and the men in harnesses and leather shorts and metal codpieces that would fit in right across the street at the Black Party.
For some reason, Pontius Pilate is dressed in a garish purple suit and tie that makes him look like a nightclub owner (a Wall Street business suit seems to be more appropriate for this, the ultimate Company Man). The worst gaff comes at the end, as the Risen Christ in all his glory is wearing a white satin leisure suit that makes him look less like "salvator mundi" (the savior of the world) than an emcee at a suburban bar mitzvah.
The orchestra gives it a real hard-rock bent, which works well except in those places where the driving rhythm threatens to overwhelm the lyrics. In a sung-through musical, this presents a problem for an audience relying on the singing to figure out what's going on.
Oddly, these little miscues not only don't mar the production, they also add to the gloriously energetic staging. Above all, this is "Jesus Christ Superstar" that makes a powerful argument for the continued relevance of this early Rice-Lloyd Webber hit by pointing up just how seriously the creators took the original text.
If I'm still unconvinced that "Superstar" can take its place as a modern take on Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," the very fact that I could make such a comparison at all shows how well this production brings out the meaning of an event that has become the touchstone of Western civilization.
With this revival, "Jesus Christ Superstar" can finally take its place among the truly great Broadway musicals, the ones that reach down into the souls of its audience and takes them to a greater place, even if only for an evening.
"Jesus Christ Superstar" enjoys an extended run at the Neil Simon Theater, 250 W. 52nd St. For info or tickets call 877-250-2929 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com/Jesus-Christ-Superstar-NY-tickets/artist/1662928