Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Review: 'Jesus Christ Superstar' Rises at the Neil Simon Theatre

2012 'Jesus Christ Superstar' Playbill (photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
Chilina Kenedy (Mary Magdelene), Paul Nolan (Jesus Christ)
and Josh Young (Judas Iscariot). (all production photos: Joan Marcus)
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ tells of the final days of Jesus Christ leading up to his crucifixion as seen through the eyes of his betrayer, Judas, in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s landmark rock opera. After earning ecstatic reviews at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada last fall on its way to San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, the production with most of its cast intact moves to Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre.

The last Broadway revival of ‘Superstar’ played in 2000 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts and ran for 161 performances. The reviews were largely negative in a version that was overproduced lacking absolutely any nuances (machine guns for the Roman soldiers?) overpowering the cast and music. But then again the cast and primarily the actor portraying the title character lacked much stage presence. It was a headache inducing experience.

This 2012 revival is a welcomed relief from that prior experience and it is a version that is as best it could be using the concepts employed by director Des McAnuff and his design team. But it appears something apparently was lost from Statford to New York as the reviews were mixed upon opening. Having not seen the Stratford or La Jolla versions, I can only judge the show on the merits of tonight’s performance.

The company.
Paul Nolan and Josh Young
As directed by McAnuff and designed by Robert Brill (sets), Paul Tazewell (costumes), Howell Binkley (lighting) and Sean Nieuwenhuis (video design), they do a service to remind themselves to highlight the songs and actors that I found myself recalling my fondness for the score that I have not listened to in full for a few years now. I felt so reconnected to the music that I couldn’t believe with the brevity by which act one moved. I have to admit the second part of act two does drag on for a bit in any version of the show.

Before anyone starts criticizing the accessible pastiche of music by Lloyd Webber and the lyrics by Tim Rice, one must recall they wrote the musical in their early 20s and had to promote the score via a concept album which lead to the original 1971 Broadway production. The score is accomplished for the then young team.

Let’s quickly run through the memorable songs in the score: “Heaven on their Minds,” “What’s the Buzz,” “Everything’s Alright,” “Hosanna,” “Simon Zealotes,” “Pilates’ Dream,” “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” “Gethsemane,” “Herod’s Song” and the showstopper “Superstar”.

left to right: Mark Cassius, Marcus Nance, Jeremy Kushnier, Josh Young,
Sandy Winsby and Aaron Walpole.
Paul Nolan (center)
Josh Young as Judas brings a fresh take on the role hinting at an unrequited love as his source of betrayal and provides the stamina to perform the character’s demanding songs. Less successful is Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magadalene. Possessing a blank stare, Kennedy brings nothing new to the role but at least she does sing well. Part of the blame is placed on the McAnuff who lets her overstay her welcome in scenes where she proves to be a distraction. I felt like slapping her on the face a couple of times to get off the stage.

Paul Nolan does okay in the role and sings quite finely the songs for Jesus Christ. It is a given the actor is required to have a reserved presence until his expected outbursts and for that the actor cannot be blamed. Excellent support is provided by Tom Hewitt (Pontius Pilate), all regal decked out in deep purple garb, and Bruce Dow (King Herod), supplying the camp and macabre presence necessary in his big second act number.

I’ve always had trouble when all aspects of a ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ production takes on a modern feel. To me the rock opera concept was far more interesting when the costumes and sets leaned towards the traditional with hints of the contemporary. But the design team makes these contradicting elements work.

Paul Nolan and Lee Siegel.
Bruce Dow (center)

The actors appear on stage in modern dress before changing into garbs that mixes period designs with edgy accents for most of the show. All the costumes are appropriate where in other versions I have seen they are distracting or far too plain. The set is comprised of metal bridges and stairs on the three sides and massive video screens that bring interest to the character movement in a show not known for its choreography.

Despite the show's history and popularity (no doubt licensing for schools and community theaters has engrained the show in the minds of many Americans and visitors from around the world) the production appeared able to carve out a decent run if not a profitable one. Alas a closing notice is expected to be announced soon as evidence by the fire sale of logo merchandise at the show’s souvenir stand.

That is sad news. It’s a vibrant revival that should be preserved on recording. At least I can now try to wipe away the memories of that version I saw in New York over ten years ago and replace it with recollections of this far better production.

  • Website:
  • Where: Neil Simon Theatre
  • Location: 250 West 52nd Street, New York City
  • When: Tue-Sun 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm
  • Running Time: 2hrs
  • Ticket Prices: $62-$142
  • Opening: Mar 22, 2012 (previews from Mar 1, 2012)
  • Closing: Open Ended
  • Book Online:
  • Ticket Services: 877-250-2992
  • Cast Recording: show was not recorded.

Chilina Kennedy, Josh Young and Paul Nolan.
The company of JCS.
Paul Nolan.
Paul Nolan
Josh Young
Chilina Kennedy
Paul Hewitt (Pontius Pilate)
Bruce Dow (King Herod)


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