A CurtainUp Review
Jesus Christ Superstar
By Elyse Sommer & Les Gutman
Jesus Christ Superstar is the show that put Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice on the musical map. It went from hit song to LP album to hit London and then Broadway musical, to much produced also ran productions world-wide -- to newly staged, edgier London and British touring hit and now back to Broadway, again in a huge theater. Whew! Quite a ride! No wonder the producers are banking that this production will have a long ride like the original (720 performances at the sadly-defunct Mark Hellinger, 3357 at London's Palace).
Webber and Rice's can still lay claim to JCS being a pop opera -- that is, if you define opera as a story that's all sung through and with at least one death at the end. The quasi profundity that haunts so many Lloyd Webber musicals is here intensified by the God-rocking halo of "the greatest story ever told" -- the last days in Jesus Christ's life culminating in his crucifixion. It offers uplift aplenty, as when Jesus proclaims "sing me a song but not for me alone -- there's not one of you that cannot reach the kingdom." When he faces his crucifixion with "God, thy will is hard, but you hold every card," it's get out your kleenex time for the disciples in the audience as well as on stage.
Unlike Lloyd Webber's greatest hit, Phantom, this early work actually has more than one number that sticks in the memory -- notably, "Everything's Alright", "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "King Herod's Song." The pretty second-act "Could We Start Again, Please," which was added to the original Broadway production, are here as well. Devotees of the show rest assured. This new production includes all the other songs as well, songs that have seeded numerous recordings and kept the video version of the Norman Jewison film on the best renter and sales list.
So, what's new about this resurrection of the poperatic Jesus Christ?
For starters, the show looks good, in fact very good. The same Peter J. Davison who designed the stunningly simple, metaphoric set for the recently opened Copenhagen has here created a more elaborate but not overly techno-glitzy bi-level set. It serves the story and the large cast very well and its graffiti splattereded walls and several tall columns manage to suggest both the sort of inner city where lost young souls roam and the mystery of ancient Rome. Roger Kirk's costumes support the modern-ancient look -- modern hipness for the disciples, somber non-time specific black for the Romans; a touch of La Dolce Vita crossed with Las Vegas glitter for a campy and much needed comic King Herod and the Supremes production number. For more pizazz, there's lots of smoke in a full spectrum of colors and a blinding and gigantic cross.
Director Gale Edwards' decision to make the arrest and crucifixion truly dark and bloody brings the story to a striking and visceral conclusion -- first the wordless beating of the imprisoned Jesus, and finally his bloody death on the cross at the hands of his tormentors. These scenes are the show's best.
The music, while more pop-schlock than top-rock, is varied and full of the youthful enthusiasm that became increasingly ponderous in later Lloyd Webber musicals. The orchestrations are clear and, except towards the end, not pumpingly loud. Choreography is servicable but never blazes any new trails -- something that would have added purpose to this revival.
Most of the performances seem like pale copies, and this more than anything else accounts for the rather soul-less feeling the production conveys. It's as if this were a road tired touring production rather than a brand new Broadway musical revival in which producers have obviously invested a fortune.
Glenn Carter certainly looks the part of Jesus and he knows how to get at some of the score's more difficult high notes. However, as the man who must surely have been history's most charismatic figure, he's too bland, too typical. As Judas, spikey-haired Tony Vincent, looking like the refugee from Rent which he, in fact, is, obviously is already suffering from the kind of vocal strain that sidelined the originally-announced Judas. For the record, one of us (Elyse) liked his performance. The other was disappointed, wishing he could have seen Ben Vereen, or at least Adam Pascal (currently wasted in Tim Rice's other opening of the season, Aida), in this role. Maya Days is a touching Mary, especially in her big solo "I Don't Know How to Love Him." But the imprint of Yvonne Elliman on this role is too great to overcome with Days too suffering from comparison.
We had no disagreement about the supporting cast standouts. Without a doubt, the villains win the day, with the dynamic Kevin Gray pretty much stealing the show as Pontius Pilate. His is one of the main performances worth writing home about. Frederick B. Owens as Caiaphas is also, at least when it's not overshadowed by the awful performance of his compatriot, Annas (Ray Walker).) As the single contributor of humor in this otherwise tragic saga, Paul Kandel couldn't be better in his rendition of "King Herod's Song."
This second coming of Jesus Christ Superstar opened most aptly on Palm Sunday, 2000. Fans rather than critics will probably determine how long it will roam the earth.