Twice this season, directors whose work I respect have brought shows to Broadway with bold new concepts. And twice this season, I've left those shows disappointed and thinking, "the concept must have looked great on paper, but the execution stinks." The first show was that messy affair called On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; the second is the shockingly dull revival of Jesus Christ Superstar that opened last night.
Director Des McAnuff promised us an edgier Superstar, more in the risky vein of the ground-breaking concept album that came out in the 1970's. This version is supposed to have more of a rock concert sensibility, with a tighter focus on the central "love triangle" between Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot, and a modern sense of urgency in its design and execution. Sounds like it could be cool, right? Certainly better than a rehash of the movie or a tribute to the original production.
Unfortunately, no new ground has been covered here. Over the years, I've seen better individual elements, and better complete productions that have moved me to tears and left me exhilarated. That was not the case here. Instead, I found it safe and full of unfulfilled promise. Simply put, there is nothing really wrong with this production, but there is nothing that even approaches greatness, either.
As far as a "rock concert" feel goes, Webber's music certainly can be played in that style - the "brown album" and a few earlier productions have proven that. However, under the supervision of Rick Fox, the band (with no strings, I won't call it an orchestra) is HEAVILY synthesized and devoid of any emotional content. Every note is precisely played - so perfect that one could legitimately ask if the show is recorded instead of live. And, despite a cheeky pre-show candy wrapper announcement that tells us to unwrap with abandon because the music will be so loud, Steve Canyon Kennedy's sound is so perfect and fills the theatre so well, it is almost pleasant to the ear. Rock concert loud (to me, anyway) means leaving with your ears feeling full of cotton.
Which brings me to the vocal quality of the performance. Like the rest of the show, it is careful, precise and devoid of any genuine emotion. Sung exactly as it is written (including those signature screaming falsettos done by Jesus and Judas particularly during "emotional outbursts"), if this version is given a cast recording, one might buy it simply to have a "how to sing Superstar" primer. But, then again, this is the age of Idol, where volume and histrionic singing equals a quality performance.
There are two exceptions to this, one great, one not so. Tom Hewitt sings and emotes his way through the role of Pontius Pilate with such power and presence, it is completely different show when he is on stage. The same can be said for the Herod of Bruce Dow, but for all the wrong reasons. The man cannot sing and had breath control issues that made him seem out of breath throughout. And when he can't sing the note, he shouts it. If Edna Turnblad did musicals, this is how she'd do Herod. Only she'd act like she meant it. Dow knows he's purely comic relief here, and finds no irony in the moment whatsoever. To be fair, that is not entirely his fault, being that the number is staged more like a Las Vegas version of Joseph... than an emotion-packed Superstar. The costumes are porn-shop throwaways, the dancing exactly what you'd expect - Egyptian moves with a naughty styling, and fake piano playing. Been there, done that, Madonna did it better at the Super Bowl.
Speaking of design, the unit set by Robert Brill is all metal and exposed lighting (a la rock concert) but is so sterile it is mind numbing. Aided (I'm being sarcastic) by a pair of constantly moving giant stair cases, the scenes move fussily from one to the next. The scene transitions are so choreographed, they are moved literally by each note coming from the band. At one point I was surprised cast members weren't vomiting on the stairs, they were being moved so fast and into several consecutive positions. And then out of the blue, there are oddly timed automated scenery pieces - the Last Supper table is pushed on by the guys, and whisked off by computer later? Why? Please don't say it was an artistic choice. Even when moved by humans, the whole set has the power of an assembly line. Do I attribute the CNN crawling lights to Brill, lighting designer Howell Binkley or video designer Sean Nieuwenhaus? It matters not because it adds nothing except a few giggles to the proceedings. If this is modern urgency, then I really am numb to the world. If telling us, scene by scene, where we are, what day of the week it is, and even the exact hour, is meant to heighten the dramatic tension, it doesn't. I actually laughed when the day and time was "announced" as Judas' body was swinging from the rafters. (And I mean that literally - no stylistic suicide here. Is that also a "modernism"?) The rest of Binkley's lights are nondescript: they are neither "rock concert" bold, not theatrically thematic or moody. And Nieuwenhaus's video contributions (I'll assume this includes projections) are about 15 years out of date. Even Carrie didn't resort to red slashes across the back wall when blood was shed. Again, this production chooses odd, and laughable, times to be literal. Aside from the swinging Judas dummy, there is the plastic food at the Last Supper. From the mezzanine, the animal bones looked like a Fred Flintstone snack, and what I think was a bowl of salad (!) looked like a pizza - I'm not kidding. I wish I was.
But you know, I love Superstar (which might be the problem for me) enough, that I could overlook all of the above, if two things were happening. One: a coherently coordinated effort at the promised concept. And two: acting.
Again with the "modern urgency." Are we supposed to be freaked out, chilled to the bone or otherwise moved by the "ominous" 2012 on the big screen or the closing END OF DAYS admonishment as the lights go down at the end? Playing into the whole 2012 end of the world thing in such a cheesy way certainly feels modern. National Enquirer/TMZ modern. Doesn't the telling of the last days of Jesus Christ (whether you believe or not) deserve just a bit more reverence or at least less sleaze? And I had to giggle again as the cast, at the beginning and the end, dressed in modern garb (I think - if ninjas, X-Men and Jedi were real and sold at American Outfitters - and all designed by Paul Tazewell) advance toward us silently, sneering in that "I know something you don't know" smug way that annoys the crap out of me. THEY DID IT TWICE!!! And there is Lisa Shriver's choreography, which comes closest to "modern urgency." Lifted from any number of hip hop videos, the athletic dances are the most interesting thing that happens on stage, even when it threatens to be so busy you have to turn away for a moment. But even as good as the dances are (the Herod number excepted) they are, like everything else, so precise they are devoid of emotion. There is no wiggle room for an inspired dancer to cut footloose (not even Jeremy Kushnier).
Before I talk about the alleged love triangle, let me comment on the priests. They are appropriately dour, completely non-threatening and lose all street cred when they must lift their black leather
Now, the centerpiece of McAnuff's "vision": the heightening of the "love triangle" between Jesus, Judas and Mary. If rubbing Jesus's hair and a coy upstage kiss on the cheek is meant to show anything between Jesus and Judas, then... yawn. And if stolen glances and exactly one near miss of being caught together means there is something going on between Judas and Mary, then... yawn. And if Mary acting like the First Lady (she apparently saw Evita) and more like a guard dog than lover/confidante to Jesus is meant to heighten their relationship, then... you guessed it. It isn't for a lack of trying.
It is no wonder Josh Young (Judas) has gotten sick since I saw the show, so much of himself does he throw into his performance. He runs the set with abandon, shows up for all of his light cues and sings all the notes just right (even with some judicious key changes). And the guy sure can work blue satin and sequins! But he registers more like an irritating killjoy than any kind of menace to world order. And one has to wonder where all the Canadian women were the day they auditioned the role of Mary Magdalene. Chilina Kennedy (her name is more interesting than her performance) brings a guard dog feel to the role - not her fault entirely, as that is the way she's been directed. But have you ever heard the song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" where you weren't moved even a little bit? The lyrics and music so demand an emotional reading, it should be impossible not to do it decently. And yet, Ms. Kennedy has found a way to not do it decently. What does it all mean when her best number is that throwaway gem, "Could We Start Again, Please?" (in this production a trio for Mary, Judas and Peter, played by the bland-as-plain-oatmeal Mike Nadajewski)?
And is it blasphemous to speak ill of Jesus? Surely, they could have found a better Jesus than Paul Nolan. OK, I'm not that religious. But shouldn't the man in whose name millions have died have even a little charisma? From the minute he strolls on to the stage in his white lounge pants and three sizes too big shirt, he exudes all of the qualities of a tired puppy, bored with the world and with an annoying level of pseudo angst. Sad eyes, a genuine knack for working what appears to be wet strands of blond hair, and an awkward use of moderately hairy sexy pecs does not a performance, or a Jesus, make. He sings well - again, hitting all the notes - and screams perfectly on cue - but with very little passion. When "Gethsemane" fails to move me, there is really something bad happening on stage. What does it all mean when the most interesting thing about the crucifixion is that Jesus goes from suit to loin cloth via a vacuum suck hole in the floor in less than 2 seconds? (Is that a sin? If not, maybe it should be.)
I've read that this production is exactly what Lord Webber and Sir Rice always wanted from Jesus Christ Superstar. If this passionless piece is the pinnacle, then I have lost a lot of respect for them both. When the most controversial figure of all time is treated with such a lack of emotion and robotic precision takes its place, I'd say we've hit the wall. Could we have no more revivals of this, please?
(Production photos by Joan Marcus)