Jesus Christ Superstar the show holds a godlike stature almost as ranking almost as high as the deity it portrays. Its status as an early ancestor of the rock opera – ancestors include The Who’s Tommy, Rent and Next to Normal – has granted it real estate in the pantheon of the most influential works of the modern musical era. To love the show, affectionately christened JCS by its myriad followers, is a religion unto itself.
For those not baptized in the waters of this game-changer, Superstar marked the emergence of musical writing team Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. It is an entirely sung-through, guitar-heavy re-enactment of the last days Jesus (Paul Nolan) spent on Earth and the oddly destructive yet inspiring triangle he formed with Judas Iscariot (Josh Young) and Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy). Director Des McAnuff (who also helmed Tommy two decades ago) and his company have crafted a revival full of reverence, not so much for the greatest story ever told as much as for the two creators it lionizes here.
This isn’t a false idea. In Superstar, the music is the message, and you feel it in the audience the second you first hear the opening bars of the show’s title song. As energized as McAnuff’s production, which bowed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and also ran at the La Jolla Playhouse, is, the show’s plot is surprisingly slender. Like Gertrude Stein once remarked of California, another place full of idol worship, there’s no there there.
So it’s the performances on which we must rely to make Jesus’ final passage a harrowing one. Only the clarion Young succeeds entirely at making us feel something, lacing his Judas with sensuality and envy, and suggesting that his betrayal of Jesus comes less as a result of feeling his friend has violated his beliefs and more of a result of coveting his connection to Mary Magdalene. However, he’s clearly the hypotenuse in this triangle, since neither Nolan nor Kennedy muster quite the same amount of passion. Nolan’s rock-god falsetto hits his notes impeccable in numbers like “Gethsemane,” but can’t always telegraph the sorrow of his betrayal and sacrifice. Likewise, the saturnine Kennedy can sweetly coo the immortal “I Don’t Know How to love him,” but she cannot suggest all the necessary sturm und drung that should lie beneath it. In numbers like “Heaven on Their Minds,” to his musing “Strange Thing, Mystifying,” only Young can fully enunciate the torn feelings battling within him.
Several supporting players are able to plumb beneath the surface of Superstar. Aaron Walpole is a beguilingly slick Annas, particularly in the Act One finale “Blood Money,” and the devilish Tom Hewitt clearly relishes his role as the flashy Pontius Pilate. McAnuff also lets Bruce Dow steal the early second act as King Herod. Howell Binkley’s lighting and Steve Canyon’s sound design also play a major role in McAnuff’s production. Canyon should especially be saluted for enabling a loud show that never once drowns out the mighty pipes of this talented ensemble.
Still, this revival doesn’t always know how to move us. What it ultimately serves as is a love note to the composers who first bore it. This Superstar celebrates two idols, to be sure, but neither of them have names beginning with “J.”
Jesus Christ Superstar
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