Two 1970s musicals based on the life of Jesus are now being revived on Broadway, just two blocks away from each other. Although both end with a crucifixion, they are very different in character.
While Godspell, which opened a few months ago at Circle in the Square, features a bunch of cheery kids acting out the parables, making pop-culture references and singing light pop and folk songs, Jesus Christ Superstar is an edgy, ominous and exhilarating examination of Jesus’ last week loosely based on the Gospels.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s popular rock opera, which debuted as an album before it ever reached the stage, depicts Jesus as an insecure person unprepared for celebrity status and paints a sympathetic and tragic portrait of Judas.
In spite of its international popularity, it has yet to achieve much success on Broadway. The original 1971 production, which had a crazy design scheme of insect symbolism, was absolutely puzzling, and a lackluster 2000 revival flopped.
Des McAnuff, whose greatest successes have been rock musicals like Tommy and Jersey Boys, is an ideal director for the project. His exciting production, which premiered last summer at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and then transferred to the La Jolla Playhouse, combines a rock concert atmosphere with an elegant simplicity.
A rolling LED news scroll, not unlike what you’d find outside the Fox News building, is used throughout the production to remind the audience of the time and place of each scene in a Brechtian manner. After the crucifixion, the news scrolls speed up and consume the entire stage. In another neat trick, shades of red light are used to signify the 39 lashes.
Since the actors refrain from giving melodramatic performances, McAnuff’s production manages to focus squarely on the score and the story. It maintains a fast pace and runs exactly two hours in length. The original orchestrations, played by an 11-member band, sound great. Lisa Shriver’s freestyle hip-hop choreography accurately reflects the propulsive and catchy music.
While the scruffy-looking Apostles climb on and off the shiny steel ladders and stairs of a two-story industrial set, the costumes mix traditional and modern garb. The priests are set apart with turbines and deadlocks.
As Jesus, Paul Nolan emphasizes the character’s inner strength and calm meditative spirit. Chilina Kennedy’s Mary Magdalene represents a scared woman trying to be strong.
Josh Young, who plays Judas, was out during most of the press previews and replaced by Jeremy Kushnier, who is impressively understated in a role that usually draws overblown, raging performances. Both Nolan and Kushnier are both vocally extraordinary and handle the demanding score, which calls for countless high notes, with surprising ease.
Tom Hewitt is perhaps most gripping of all as Pilate, who is spooked by the violent proceedings before him but too frustrated to stop them. On the other hand, Bruce Dow makes for an appropriately campy King Herod, providing much-needed comic relief with his music hall number.