Friday, March 23, 2012

Jesus Christ Superstar: It's Electric

Jesus Christ Superstar oscillates between delicious camp and serious moments making for an enjoyable night of theater that won't stretch your brain but will possibly tickle your funny bone.  And it may be the rare evening you find yourself raucously cheering whilst someone is being crucified.  Awkward on many levels of my Catholic guilt, but it was a sparkly, loud, rock out moment and one of the more memorable ones in the show.

This Des McAnuff production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock musical comes to Broadway from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.  The story is structured around the last days of Jesus Christ (Paul Nolan) as seen through the eyes of Judas (Josh Young's fantastic understudy Jeremy Kushnier performed during a lot of the previews including the one I saw).  McAnuff has staged the show as a love triangle between Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy), Jesus, and Judas. 

As much as this "love triangle" approach is apparently a new angle on this material it seemed to me (who had never listened to the cast album or seen the show before) as a completely reasonable interpretation.  But just to be clear, the love triangle seemed to be Mary and Judas both being in love with Jesus more than Jesus and Judas both being in love with Mary.

Depending on the number I felt like some songs were still rocking and fun ("Heaven on Their Minds") and others a little dated, synth-y and twangy ("What's the Buzz").  I loved the post-apocalyptic look of some of the costumes and set mixed with vaguely "period" style garments.  When things were supposed to get a little "sexy," the costuming went very camp and I enjoyed it for that fact alone but it was out of sync with the rest of the design elements.  Gold cod-pieces and spandex are not the most digestible of choices for "serious" theater.  

I had to stifle my giggles during several scenes (afraid that others around me might be taking this very seriously--I mean it's Jesus after all).  But some of it is so ridiculous you have to laugh.  The Herod scene is like Paul Lind and Liberace had a baby!  Either you'd enjoy that or you wouldn't (I would and did!).  I found the "escalator to Heaven" moment really awkward...but in a delightfully hilarious way.  If this was a Frank Wildhorn musical the literal song of this moment (a game The Craptacular likes to play) would be a song by Jesus called "Dad I Am Standing on My Escalator to Heaven and It's Going Up."

The digital projections worked at some moments (I LOVED the use of text and the use of the red lights during the lashes scene) but otherwise found them to be too early Atari for my taste. They came out looking a little more cheap retro-tech than may have been intended.

I liked the modern look to the production overall.  The metallic framed stage and the idea of projections worked well.  But as mentioned the tone shifts from high camp to seriousness were problematic.  I decided to forgive these whiplash moments because in the aggregate I was having a good time with it all.  I'm not sure a fully camp production would have worked and I appreciated not having it be deadly serious from beginning to end (that would have just been "church").  But maybe the costumes, design, or staging could have been improved to smooth over the bumps in these jarring tone shifts.


There is no question that Jeremy Kushnier and Paul Nolan are compelling and engaging leads.  They seemed well-matched to each other and the tension between their characters whether out of love or jealousy or some philosophical fracture was palpable through the music and performances.  Chilina Kennedy was less effective.  A little too gaped mouthed and non-specific in her actions.  She hit her marks, turned her head, and sang her songs but without emotion or passion.  It's too bad because the cast is largely a lot of fun to watch.

I really enjoyed the fight and movement work by the ensemble (Julius Sermonia was a stand-out here).  Mike Nadajewski as Peter and Lee Siegel at Simon Zealotes stood out to me with their great voices and touching moments.

If you want to purge the hyperactive, lecture driven Godspell from your mind, this production will do the trick (If there's one Jesus you see this season...I vote for this one).  Jesus Christ Superstar was a lot of fun, talented singers are on display, and some really interesting choices were made in the direction and staging.  Definitely worth checking out.  

1 comment:

  1. I almost wrote in my review "If you only see one crucifixion musical this season, make it this one," (that should be their tag line) but then I decided to focus on Kushnier. Jesus Christ Superstar > Godspell

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