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Jesus Christ Superstar
While renowned and adored by some, the inherent, irreverent shallowness of this early Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice pop-opera seems more so in this high-tech designed, low-results production directed by the Stratford’s usually admirable Artistic Director Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys). Were it not for the singularly intense and brilliantly energizing performance of Josh Young, as Judas, I don’t know how I could have made through to the crucifixion. More amazing is that Young had only just returned to the show after being out on sick leave and still managed to steal the thunder from everyone.
Since it was first produced on Broadway in 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar has remained a popular pageant with high school drama departments and community theaters. Broadway revivals in 1977 and in 2000 have not met with great success. But, if anyone might be able to conjure up a tolerable showcase for this often tasteless, mostly boring, mock religioso depiction of Christ’s last seven days, you would think it could be McAnuff. However, any demonstration of flair and finesse is hard to find amidst the concerted flailing about of a company that mostly appears to be either sleep-walking or as victims of mass hypnoses.
If there is credit to be given to McAnuff, it is for directing the whole quasi-inspirational circus around him as if it was the second coming in a post-apocalyptic world. No one would have been surprised had Mel Gibson driven on stage in a tank made of salvaged metal.
Howell Binkley's lighting is most effective in keeping track of number of lashes given to Jesus being whipped by beaming red neon streaks across the back of set designer Robert Brill’s huge metal silvery frame construction that tends to suggest a more Nordic than Semitic architectural influence.(Haven’t we had enough of these things that look as if we are somewhere under the Brooklyn Bridge?) Even without the song “What’s the Buzz,” there is an amusing nod to Fox News reporting with a streaming update giving us the day, the date, and the place things are happening.
Posing and posturing in a white tunic with a plunging neckline, a little too often for my earthly taste, Paul Nolan’s Jesus does get to recline a while as he gets his feet washed by Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy) which seems to inspire a very weird looking communal body-washing scene among some very fishy looking fishermen and their significant others. One has to be grateful that Nolan isn’t inclined to beatific smiles, but it would have been nice to see more than one, make that two, expressions on his face.< Considering the kind of musical amplification that is obligatory in a musical such as this, Nolan’s voice has the potential for being expressive, particularly in the soulfully plaintive “Poor Jerusalem,” and to a lesser degree in the more rock-oriented ensemble numbers.
Although we can see that Jesus is having a particularly bad hair day, it doesn’t stop him from meandering among his following through the streets, and then paying a visit to the temple that has evidently become the local bazaar for corruption and decadence. It is here that we get a glimpse of those inclined to loll about in the giddy collection of S & M haute couture, the work of costume designer Paul Tazewell. Tazewell’s taste for the grotesque is also applied to the Ninja warrior costumes worn by the local law enforcement thugs. He puts a striking royal purple suit on Tom Hewitt who, as Pontius Pilate, gives what could be considered a commendably dramatic consideration.
Choreographer Lisa Shriver uses Webber’s eclectic mixture of pop-cultured music for some hilariously conceived and executed dances. More often than not these bear a scary resemblance to an aerobics class punctuated with a few gymnastic flips and hand springs.
As Judas, that man with a real attitude problem, Young appears possessed by an ever-increasing rage, apparently a demonstration of inner turmoil and guilt that becomes the epitome of the nihilistic punk rock star —loud but not always clear. As the ubiquitous Mary Magdalene, Kennedy wore a gold dress that had as many folds as the contour curtain at Radio City Music Hall. In keeping with her blank expression, she maintained the presence and reserve of a diva on sabbatical; as such, she was much too tepid a temptress to be much fun. One can only wonder what her big song and the show’s hit tune, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” would sound if only she had put some feeling into it.
Even less fun was the usually comically vulgar, but now blatantly repulsive vaudevillian turn done by King Herod (Bruce Dow) and his glitzy garish chorus-line court. Although the crucifixion scene is designed to be arty and bloodless, it has the effect of simply being endless. While this Candadianized re-enactment of the Passion Play undoubtedly has enough moments to keep the faithful in tow, it comes up considerably shorter as entertainment than the other rocking and even less fun Jesus musical Godspell.
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