Jesus Christ Superstar
La Jolla Playhouse, Neil Simon Theatre
Des McAnuff has risen to the ranks of an esteemed genius in the theatre world. His productions with the LaJolla Playhouse have led to a bevy of artistic and financial successes. His latest effort is headed back to Broadway in the spring. ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is a crisp reinvigoration of the early 70s ground breaking rock musical. When Andrew Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber melded the rock and theatre idioms on the debut album, the result was a mixture of derision, envy and eventual acceptance. It was an era of innovative rock operas on vinyl: The Who’s ‘Tommy’ (which McAnuff has also tackled, with extremely satisfying results) and a couple ambitious efforts by Ray Davies and his Kinks.
With Deep Purple’s lead singer Ian Gillian in the titular role for the original ‘Superstar’ album, some rock fans could find a way into the traditional story. It was a tough sell when the album was released: rock fans thought the production too much of a musical, and latter fans cringed at the wailing guitars and thick backbeat. It was perfect for the burgeoning FM radio format, which is where I first discovered it. Eventually, the controversial nature of the production brought it sufficient attention to garner financial backing for a Broadway production. Nonetheless, devout Christians saw blasphemy, Jews saw anti-Semitism.
Direct from the esteemed Stratford Festival where it played this summer, McAnuff worked with designer Robert Brill to create a versatile set comprised of metal scaffolding and movable risers. The remarkable first act is a hard act to follow, and indeed the second act lags after the preceding energy. For those unfamiliar with this interpretation of the last week of Jesus’ life, most remarkable is the role of Judas. Portrayed here as far less a traitor and more as a protector of his friend Jesus, Judas wants to protect the success achieved by Jesus and the apostles. Also explored is the love triangle among Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene. As played by Josh Young, Judas is a tour de force. Jesus (Paul Nolan) is mostly in a reactive role, taking in that which transpires around him and only revealing his doubts in the moving finale of the second act.
The musicians are clearly rockers at heart, the guitarists shred in styles ranging from Pink Floyd to Jimmy Page. Musical director Rick Fox adroitly weaves acoustic instrumentation and horns to modulate the pace and tone of the score. My recollection of the triumphant theme song was that it was more pervasive, but it truly only appears in 3 short bursts. Apparently my recollection of hearing it on FM radio those decades ago was more indelible.
Modern touches, such as an electric news ticker, help guide the timeline. The book follows the last week of Christ’s life, drawing from the Gospels but adding some thoughtful political and social aspects.
Of the many notable productions McAnuff has produced (‘Big River’, ‘Jersey Boys’), he has tackled two rock-oriented productions with messiah-based themes. I prefer ‘Tommy’ for myriad reasons, but ‘JCS’ is a worthy effort. Pete Townshend wrote this about ‘Tommy,’ and it provides a likely glimpse into McAnuff’s attraction to the two productions:
It is the prime example of rock and roll throwing off its three-chord musical structure, discarding its attachment to the three-minute single, openly taking on the unfashionable questions about spirituality and religion and yet grimly hanging on to the old ways at the same time.
The production opens March 22, 2012 at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway.