There’s no two ways around it. Jesus Christ Superstar is craptacular. I mean. Let’s be real here. Judas comes back from the dead dressed head to toe in blue, with a fully spangled sequin shirt under a taffeta suit, and sings to Jesus who is also dead or at least dying. Are you grasping that? Dead Judas. Sequined shirt. Belting his pretty face off. Chekov, this is not. And thank fucking god for that.
But then… wasn’t that the point all along? Isn’t that exactly what Judas has been saying this whole damn show? That Jesus is getting out of hand? That the madness has become bigger than the man and it’s distorting his message?
Is there any better way to say that than by dangling an enormous cross over your stage and lighting it up like a Christmas tree while a tortured man hangs upon it, painfully contorted, dying of dehydration? I can’t think of one. Well, I mean, unless you spangled his loin cloth. Or made him wear a solid gold codpiece, but I digress.
Solid gold codpieces do feature in Des MacAnuff’s new production of Jesus Christ Superstar, though. In the temple scene the audience understands which characters are hookers by their sparkly codpieces, leather harnesses, and tiny, tiny, tiny dresses. And their big, poufy hair, too. I mean… this kind of literal interpretation feels like MacAnuff is assuming we’re all stupid. But then. Not everyone knows the story of the temple and what happens there, I guess. And at least he made things all flashy while Jesus was having his public temper tantrum, screaming at everyone and throwing shit around. (Hey, it could be worse; this could be “Alas for You”!)
So yes, there are moments where MacAnuff’s production misses the mark. King Herod’s scene is… simultaneously too much and not enough, falling just short of the level of crazy needed for truly powerful satire in that moment. And Jesus and Mary, in particular—played by Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy, respectively—are given a bit too much time to stare off into space looking thoughtful/all-knowing/distraught/vapid.
But Jesus Christ, can these guys sing. Nolan’s rock tenor is so powerful, and seems so effortless in its production, that at one point in the first act—after a big scream-y, beautiful note—I actually exclaimed “Jesus!” (Lucky’s response? “Literally.”) Kennedy’s voice is clear and strong. The actors in smaller roles, like Simon Zealots, Caiaphas, and Annas sing wonderfully as well. It’s probably easiest just to say that the entire production is incredibly well-sung. In fact, the singing maybe the biggest strength of this taught, driving production.
Well, except for Judas and Pontius Pilate. As Judas, Josh Young is making his Broadway debut. In contrast to past Judases, Young’s unique take is steeped in subtlety—the anger, jealousy, fear and betrayal simmer just below the surface, threatening to break into a boil at any moment—and his flexible voice flies between an arresting baritone and the beautiful howling, angry tenor we’ve all come to expect from Judas. It is the ways in which Young’s voice differs from what we traditionally expect of his character—its lower range and operatic purity—that made his vocal performance so exciting. Hearing such a different voice sing songs we know so well was almost like hearing them for the first time all over again. As Pontius Pilate, Tom Hewitt is giving one of the deepest, most layered performances on that stage. It’s amazing the audience is able to take anyone seriously when they’re dressed in head to toe purple velvet, but Hewitt pulls it off with class and grace.
The beautiful score, and performances by Young and Hewitt in particular, anchor the production just enough to let its craptacularity shine. The set, designed by Robert Brill resembles scaffolding for a concert in Times Square, and makes liberal use of lighting and LED tickers to enhance the actor’s storytelling on the spare stage—sometimes with a beautiful sunset, others with hilarious red slashes of light meant to represent lashes on Jesus’ back. Costumes by Paul Tazewell mostly make the cast look like they just arrived from Tatooine via Eileen Fisher, landing in a post-apocalyptic East Village, but somehow, they work. And when a mostly nakee Paul Nolan contorts his body into that iconic crucifixion pose, that flashy cross descending behind him as the score wails on, you know you’ve just witnessed the height of 70s crazy, right here in 2012. I’d like to think Des MacAnuff knew that, too.
Photo: Joan Marcus