by: Sandi Durell
It’s still the same old story, just louder at the Neil Simon Theatre, where there are no narrative surprises and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s once revolutionary score of the 1970s seems damp and hung out to dry but for director Des McAnuff’s attempt to bring it into the 21st Century. And so the cast is dashing up and down steel ramps and ladders as fast as they can, while rolling bleachers add to the fury (set design by Robert Brill), all to engage in Lisa Shriver’s choreographic acrobatics. Ah, those young bodies twisting, turning, whirling through the air and Roman soldiers spinning silver metal poles!
This rock operetta, from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, is now a high tech, screaming campy remnant even down to the sequins that the very extraordinary voiced Josh Young, who plays Judas Iscariot, wears in the last scene. He is the definite highlight in this production. Jesus, played by Paul Nolan, seems to sleep walk through the first act, even though he’s followed in light beams craftily created by Howell Binkley, but Nolan does get up to full speed in Act Two, vocally (“Gethsemane,” “Crucifixion”) and emotionally. Both these performers have unique vocal qualities and ranges that set them apart.
There is a flashy, funny “Herod’s Song” ensemble number featuring Bruce Dow, reminiscent of Zero Mostel in “A Funny Thing Happened. . .” and Pontius Pilate, played by purple velvet-suited Tom Hewitt is sternly effective. Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy) is sweet and delivers “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” a little too quietly. “Superstar” with Judas and the Women is a big audience pleaser. Noteworthy are performances by Marcus Nance as Caiaphas and Aaron Walpole as Annas.
The Apostles are dressed in fashionable grey street clothes, the Priests in long black leather coats and Rastafarian hairdos and there’s more than a fair share of glitz in Paul Tazewell’s costumes.
There are digital readouts that keep the audience up to date time and place-wise, as well as quotations from the Bible at the big finale (projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis). And, of course, a big lighted cross. The volume is twanged up even higher with high pitched guitar and organ.
But what’s a producer to do given an old story, once new, now weary. Why, look at ‘Godspell” nearby – – trying to reve up as best it can, too.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs 2 hours with intermission.
Photo: Joan Marcus