Theater review: 'Jesus Christ Superstar' at La Jolla Playhouse
O ye of little faith. To all those who made snarky comments when it was announced that “Jesus Christ Superstar” was being resurrected by Des McAnuff, I say unto you, “Go down to La Jolla Playhouse and observe the benevolent gift of this revival, which has had the miraculous effect of turning even an Andrew Lloyd Webber denier like me into a momentary believer.”
Nothing puts me in a more secular mood than a Gospel-inspired musical, which is suddenly (and inexplicably) all the rage again. (“Godspell” is back on Broadway, and this new “Jesus Christ Superstar,” critically acclaimed when it premiered at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, transfers to the Great White Way in March.) But McAnuff manages to find refreshing sincerity in the show Webber and Tim Rice created out of their hit concept album, draining the work of its camp excesses and hitting just the right balance between modesty and flash.
A legacy of the countercultural movement, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was directed on Broadway in 1971 by Tom O'Horgan, best known for his explosive flower-power handling of “Hair,” and the show has always had a hippy-dippy, free-love aura to it. Moving from one number to the next as it traces the last days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, this eclectic opera mixing rock and theatrical pop with more classical strains seeks to “strip away the myth from the man,” as one of Rice’s occasionally overblown lyrics puts it.
McAnuff, director emeritus of La Jolla Playhouse (where he twice served as artistic director) and current artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, wisely doesn’t treat the work as though it were sprung from a time capsule in denim bell bottoms. Authority is still the enemy, institutional power remains a source of deep distrust, and celebrity (even for religious leaders with pure intentions) is the same old ego trip. But there’s a present-tense feeling to the staging that begins straightaway as a news ticker on Robert Brill’s spare set of metallic scaffolding counts back the years from 2011 to AD 30, connecting our historical moment to one two short millennia ago.
The production taps into what is universal about the musical, the welter of longing for purity and peace in an imperfect world. Jesus (a quietly charismatic Paul Nolan) dispenses a deeply compassionate wisdom that is more about love than it is about rules. Vying for the grace of his attention are Judas Iscariot (an electric Josh Young), who tries to warn Jesus that he’s on a tragic trajectory before perversely betraying him, and Mary Magdalene (a melodious Chilina Kennedy), who’s transformed by his presence even as she feels barely worthy to anoint his feet.
These relationships, spiked with curious jealousies, are presented with a degree of intimacy that prevents the characters from seeming remotely biblical. That said, to call the Jesus-Judas-Mary connection a love triangle would be an overstatement. McAnuff, no doubt mindful of the controversies kicked up when the musical first came out, treads a careful line in his approach to the personal entanglements, opting for ambiguity rather than cheap sensationalism. The scene at the temple where human flesh is bought and sold is flamboyantly rendered (Lisa Shriver’s choreography gives the smut a finger-snapping strut), but the passion between Jesus and his followers steers clear of anything blasphemously erotic.
This somewhat cautious note doesn’t diminish the overall psychological charge at all. In fact, the internal pressure is far greater than in Norman Jewison’s more perspiringly sexual 1973 film with Ted Neeley’s Jesus coming off as little more than a stylish haircut on a lithe body. (Nolan’s straggly curls may look like he just hopped out of the shower, but he brings a kind of beatific sensuality to the role.)
McAnuff, an experienced hand with hard-charging contemporary musicals (The Who’s “Tommy,” “Jersey Boys”), gets the tone just right here. Nolan’s Jesus broods over his destiny with a rock star’s ambivalence in “Gethsemane.” Kennedy’s Mary confronts with a somber inwardness the complicated human dimension of her attachment to Jesus in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” And Judas wrestles with his own conscience in “Damned for All Time” as though trying to piece together the puzzle of his guilty fate.
But “Jesus Christ Superstar” isn’t all high seriousness. There’s a priceless vaudevillian bit involving King Herod (a game Bruce Dow) who storms the stage with the twisted comic braggadocio of a middle-aged rapper emcee. And the driving melodrama of Marcus Nance’s resoundingly deep-voiced Caiaphas is nicely balanced by the colorful touches of Jeremy Kushnier’s slippery Pontius Pilate.
What restores one’s faith the most about this show is the way McAnuff shrewdly marshals his theatrical resources, never overwhelming the material with glitz and pomp but calibrating his stage effects to bring us deeper inside the human predicament of a story that’s been dubbed the greatest ever told. Howell Binkley’s lighting seems to dance off the music, which is sumptuously conducted by musical director Rick Fox. And the crucifixion, presented with an artful degree of abstraction, invites the audience to complete the image of suffering redemption.
Don’t fret, as I did going in, about spiritual dividing lines. Tightly focused and beautifully measured, this “Jesus Christ Superstar” gives everyone a reason to artistically rejoice this holiday season.
— Charles McNulty
'Jesus Christ Superstar,' La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Dec. 31. $58 to $145. (858) 550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org Running time: 2 hours
Photos: Upper: Chilina Kennedy and Paul Nolan. Lower: Josh Young (foreground) and Nolan (background). Stratford Shakespeare Festival/David Hou