Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 22, 2012
Jesus Christ Superstar The Stratford Shakespeare Festival Production. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreography by Lisa Shriver. Music direction and supervision by Rick Fox. Scenic design by Robert Brill. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. Video design by Sean Nieuwenhuis. Fight Director Daniel Levinson. Stunt Coordinator Simon Fon. Cast: Paul Nolan, Josh Young, Chilina Kennedy, Tom Hewitt, Bruce Dow, Matt Alfano, Mary Antonini, Karen Burthwright, Jacqueline Burtney, Nick Cartell, Mark Cassius, Ryan Gifford, Kaylee Harwood, Jeremy Kushnier, Krista Leis, Mike Nadajewski, Melissa O'Neil, Laurin Padolina, Katrina Reynolds, Matthew Rossoff, Jaz Sealey, Jason Sermonia, Julius Sermonia, Lee Siegel, Matt Stokes, Jonathan Winsby, Sandy Winsby, with Marcus Nance and Aaron Walpole.
This production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's hard-rocking look at the last seven days of Jesus Christ's life, which premiered last year at Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival and was subsequently seen at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, is anchored and ultimately uplifted by its supercharged focus on its two main characters. Both Jesus and Judas, approaching middle age and sharing the affection of their cohort Mary Magdalene, are rendered as helpless victims of a history swirling out of control around them. They see how they're both being manipulated — by the high priests, by the Roman government, and by the crowd longing for things that neither man can provide — yet they're unable to halt any of it. In such a situation, to whom else could they possibly turn but each other?
Don't worry, devoted Christians, it doesn't heat up more than that. But it does cut straight to the work's central question about the point at which our responsibility to ourselves ends and our responsibility to others begins. Jesus and Judas are forced by their growing fame to constantly reevaluate themselves and their behavior: Jesus because he finds that his words aren't getting through to the people he most wants to help, an increasingly unruly mob thirsty for miracles he can't unfailingly provide. And Judas because he sees his lifelong friend as someone who's all too happy heading a cult of personality, even though the messages that ignited it all — compassion toward your fellow man, turn the other cheek, and so on — are getting more drowned out in public adulation every day.
Exploring every nuance of how the two maintain their relationship, and then cause it to fray and snap altogether, is so obvious and so powerful a choice, one can only wonder why it's not standard operating procedure. Yet from Judas's opening warning shot, "Heaven on Their Minds," to his musing "Strange Thing, Mystifying" to his self-satisfied and condemnatory final word (delivered with heavy-throttling, ceiling-scraping verve) in "Superstar," it's never been made more clear that this is what this show has been about since its inception. Even a seemingly unrelated song takes on startling new significance: Just before "I Don't How to Love Him," in which Mary untangles her own complicated emotions, it's Judas who caresses and comforts Jesus while their female counterpart coos.
Keeping the action so tightly trained on this is McAnuff's most brilliant stroke in a take on this musical (which was first seen on Broadway in 1971) that is otherwise effective but mostly workmanlike. Members of the company trudge about in nondescript hipster-slum costumes (by Paul Tazewell), usually either trailing Jesus like lost puppies or blocking his way until they get what they demand. The religious leaders who are Jesus's most consistent antagonists are swathed in dark, threatening hues (most of them have voices to match) that leave no uncertainty as to whose side they're on. The temple from which Jesus ejects the moneylenders could easily be mistaken for a West Village leather bar, and King Herod's throne room for a punk fetish massage parlor. The towering crucifix at the end is lined with light bulbs. You get the idea.
A general lack of theatrical electricity doesn't help matters. Regardless of whether the (talented) ensemble is worshipping the man they revere as their god in a literal stadium or screaming for his death before the governor Pontius Pilate, they don't behave as though there's a great deal at stake. (Lisa Shriver's choreography is plentiful, but too constrained to ever communicate ecstatic abandon.) And though something is always in motion onstage (usually Sean Nieuwenhuis's video projections, either on an enormous screen backdrop or a stock ticker closer to the middle), Robert Brill's set is so time-, space-, and feeling-independent that you spend your time staring at it wondering whether it was borrowed from McAnuff's own production of Jersey Boys playing just across the street at the August Wilson.
The magic of Jesus Christ Superstar, however, is that it's so smartly and engagingly written that it can absorb more directorial foot-shuffling than most musicals. Webber's melodies remain fresh and addictive; the numbers (there's no book) don't get mired in their decades-old countercultural-pop origins. And Rice's lyrics enthrall with their unexpected takes on a reluctant Jesus, a repentant Judas, an introspective and blame-shifting Pilate, a flamboyant Herod, and more. So even if your eyes insist the staging is inappropriately static, keeping your ears from tingling, your spine from swaying, and your foot from tapping is almost impossible.
Routinely gifted actors keep your heart engaged as well. Tom Hewett is not a particularly forceful Pilate, but he conveys every drop of the character's confliction over his role. Bruce Dow, dolled up to look like a cross between Liza Minnelli and Patti LuPone's Madame Rose in Gypsy, is a nonspecifically campy yet entertaining Herod. Marcus Nance's robust bass makes him a quietly terrifying leader of the priests, and Mike Nadajewski drenches himself in a compelling remorse as the Messiah-denying Peter. Kennedy imbues Mary with a potent combination of innocence and world-wise weariness.
Josh Young is the billed Judas, but a throat ailment kept him sidelined from most press performances — including the one I attended. But Young's understudy, Jeremy Kushnier (the original star of Footloose), was flat-out incredible, with a stunningly effortless voice and a magnetic intensity that branded Judas as someone who scrupulously, and perhaps counterproductively, examined every part of his life and death. Bearing a palpable concern for his fellow man, an explosive rage toward society's excesses, and, in "Superstar," a willingness to give into what he decried, Kushnier highlighted, linked, and then demolished every contradiction he established. His virtuosic turn left you wanting nothing except to witness it again and again.
But Kushnier and Nolan performed no greater service than when working together to depict how and why their characters' codependent pairing became one of Earth's most seminal. Whether tussling over administrative matters, shouting themselves into oblivion at the Last Supper, or evincing shocking tenderness in between, their Jesus and Judas mattered to each other — and therefore could believably inspire great and terrible events to erupt around them. It may be an unconventional core for Jesus Christ Superstar, but here it's also an unforgettable one that reminds you that friends, like posterity itself, seldom take prisoners.