It would take divine intervention to save the latest revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Neil Simon Theatre.
The strains of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s music are part of our collective memory — quick, just say “Jesus Christ Superstar” and try to not sing those words. Lloyd Webber and Rice are geniuses at writing songs that stay in your brain forever. The restaging of the 1971 hit is an event, but when a few people bolted at intermission, it was understandable.
The show opens in 2012, which is told by huge letters projected onto the stage, and the clock quickly flips back until we are in the Year 33. If ever you knew the plot before heading into a theater, this was it — so clearly, it’s all in the telling.
The action follows the last week of Jesus Christ’s life, and his days are counted down, heralded on an electronic ticker, the sort across which crawls news reports. Jesus enters bathed in white light and wearing a white flowing robe, pants and shirt. Others in the cast wear modern garments. Judas is a vision in blue, and Mary Magdalene wears yellow.
The rock opera contains no dialogue, which gives some of the terrific talents a chance to shine. Josh Young, as Judas, is marvelous and knows how to use his rich voice. When Chilina Kennedy, as Mary Magdalene, sings “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” there’s a sweet stripped-away quality and a lovely serenity to the performance.
Yet Paul Nolan as Jesus is pitchy. When he hits the high notes he sounds like Steven Tyler on a bad day. He never commands the stage, never comes close. And seriously, if you cannot rule the stage as Jesus, there is a problem.
Oh, there are other problems here: the aggressive lighting, the cast that doesn’t come together and deeply strange costumes that are more confusing than anything.
The priests look like “Star Trek” villains in black leather dusters and elaborate hats, the Roman soldiers look like refugees from 1970s leather bars, and Pontius Pilate, in a purple velvet suit, looks like a lounge singer from a sad hotel on a thin-blue-line highway.
In themselves the costumes are interesting, but on this stage they do nothing but detract and distract. Still, they are a joy compared to the lighting, which might well leave retinal scarring. When Jesus is whipped and Pontius Pilate counts each lash, a red neon light sears across the backdrop. When Jesus is on the cross, klieg lights blast the audience.
The lighting begins to feel like some sort of penance. Perhaps it was to make us bow our heads, but the story and the performances should do that. In case anyone missed who this is, JESUS is spelled out in huge letters. There’s a giant lighted cross, and in general the entire production is painfully bright. Herod’s scene includes a giant “H” in gaudy lights.
There are some bright spots that have nothing to do with wattage. King Herod (Bruce Dow) has a wonderfully camp number, “King Herod.” But it is as out of place here as it could be. Perhaps director Des McAnuff staged it this way to jolt the audience into remembering this is indeed a Broadway production. Wearing crimson satin, trimmed in sequins, and with sexy chorines dancing, Herod torments the king of the Jews before pulling on his black satin sleep mask.
Jazz hands and Jesus can work. Really, what isn’t helped by jazz hands? Lisa Shriver’s choreography is excellent, and here the blend of different styles, including hip-hop, jazz, ballet and some standard Broadway moves, all work well. The chorus is great, with strong dancers and strong voices.
But why take a story that should be one for the ages and dilute it with mixed musical and costume styles? And why star a man as Jesus who never rises to the occasion unless he’s on the ramp during the resurrection?