I’ve always preferred the early “rock operas” of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to Webber’s later Rice-less musicals. So I’m thrilled that Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita are back on the boards this season. And with director Des McAnuff’s lean and propulsive production of Superstar, so far one out of the two is strongly represented on the Main Stem.
Of course the title is a bit of a cheat; Superstar actually focuses on Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would ultimately betray Jesus. The musical is based very loosely on the Gospels’ account of the last week of Jesus’ life.
One of McAnuff’s more prominent gifts as a director is his ability to keep things kinetic and moving, and that’s true in spades here. Choreographer Lisa Shriver kicks it up even further, taking his stage pictures and animating them with incredibly energetic rhythm. The metallic spareness of Robert Brill’s set, together with Howell Binkley’s expressionistic lights, reinforces the “rock concert” atmosphere.
Webber’s music for Superstar is full of youthful vitality (he was 21 when the hit concept album was released in 1969), and it is powerfully sung by an appropriately young cast. The parts of Jesus and Judas were originally sung by proto-heavy metal screamers Ian Gillian and Murray Head, respectively. This production’s Paul Nolan (Jesus) and Josh Young (Judas) have similarly titanium-plated high tenor voices – they match Gillian and Head for passion, and exceed them for musicality, expression and precision.
This production’s Mary Magdelene, Chilina Kennedy, gives a movingly understated interpretation of the show’s big hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. McAnuff has also given her character some interesting interactions with Judas that deepen the most underwritten of the three leads, and she plays it well.
There’s been some say that this production isn’t campy enough. To which I say, if you are coming to Superstar for camp, oh honey you are barking up the wrong tree. There is only one intentionally campy song in the whole show, “Herod’s Song”, and even that has a bit of a dark, vicious edge. Any other camp that one might find here comes from the fact that the show is so earnestly serious.
I am the first to defend intentional camp that is intelligently done. But as a director I have to say that condescending to the material you are working on is never a good choice. McAnuff rightly runs with Superstar‘s hard-driving seriousness, and it’s actually a much more entertaining production for that very reason.
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