Fairly close on the heels of the “Godspell” revival comes the revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice “Jesus Christ Superstar, which may or may not confirm belief in resurrection. If “Godspell” turns the New Testament into a clown show, “Superstar, in a hugely acclaimed version coming to us from Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, turns it into a glossy musical revue.
I say revue, because its mood or mode changes as often as that of a revue, which does not have the consistency of a book musical. The renowned director DesMcAnuff has somewhat reimagined this show, written 41 years ago and at first slow to reach the stage, but since then mounted all over the world and quite often in churches, proving that nothing allays religious scruples more surely than a theatrical hit. Its calling itself a rock opera—an oxymoron if ever there was one—may add to its prestige.
This first major collaboration between now Lord Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice is liberal in liberties taken with the bible story. Thus we get a Mary Magdalene who comes across as less camp follower that Jesus’ elegant mistress, and a Judas as the major and best-dressed figure in Christ’s retinue, a sort of Iago to an Othello, with the other apostles pretty much relegated to quasi-anonymity. Even Mary hardly registers. By way of finale, the crucified Jesus and hanged Judas, join in a rousingly jolly group number.
The strength of the show is some (but not all) good music; its chief (but not only) weakness, the Rice lyrics. Alongside the King James Bible, that poetic monument to the English language, here lyrics (and also dialogue) are so much puffed Rice. Take Judas singing to Jesus: “Every time I look at you, I do not understand/ Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.” Or Christ singing to the world: “Then I was inspired,/ Now I’m sad and tired.” And such stuff is profusely reiterated. Even Christ’s biblical words are flubbed: his dying plea for forgiveness for his murderers, “they know not what they do” becomes “what they’re doing,” much more mundane and prosaic.
In a sense, this production becomes a kind of film or TV documentary, with, for instance, an electronic band repeatedly informing us of the exact date and locale. Very grandiose are Paul Tazewell’s costumes, e.g., Mary Magdalene’s ballroom-gown outfit; and Howell Binkley’s splashily color-shifting lighting. Robert Brill’s unit set is like a gigantic jungle gym, with a high-up bridge and heaven-storming ladders, plus a couple of enormous staircase-like tribunes, constantly rolled about into quasi-architectural configurations.
Most attention-grabbing is Lisa Shriver’s choreography, which has the numerous chorus members performing almost unceasing, weird dances, laced with circus acrobatics as spectacular as they are distracting. Something loud or brash or busy hits us without much surcease, justified perhaps as a cover-up for artistic exiguity, but nevertheless, as Tim Rice might say, more tiring than inspiring.
Paul Nolan is an acceptable if uncharismatic Jesus, decent enough in his solo numbers, but even better in his sufferings. More notable, in a showier part, is the well-sung Judas of Josh Young, one of the two best voices around, the other being the basso cantante of Marcus Nance as Caiaphas. Tom Hewitt is an austerely elegant Pilate, and Bruce Dow a highly farcical Herod, in the show’s most Hollywoodish production number. Chilina Kennedy’s Magdalene is mostly just another pretty face; Aaron Walpole’s Annas and Mike Nadajewski’s Peter are at least noticeable.
McAnuff’s direction abounds in movement and in bodies in interesting groupings, although having characters seldom leave without marching or being marched around several times becomes tedious, even if the score may encourage it. What it all finally comes down to is whether you view “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a major or minor work, between which antithetical perceptions my mind kept continually shifting.
“Once” started life as a movie I haven’t seen, about a marginalized Irish youth, an amateur musician here called Guy, and a Czech woman of vague provenance and absent husband, here called Girl. They hang out together in Dublin and conduct a platonic love affair. I was unimpressed by “Once” as an Off Broadway musical, undistinguished dramatically, musically and histrionically, with music and lyrics by the movie’s Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who may have lived its unremarkable story. Enda Walsh, said to be a leading Irish playwright, wrote the book, no better than other works of his I have been bored by.
Transferred to Broadway, the show gains nothing. Bob Crowley’s barroom set and costumes are serviceable as before, and Natasha Katz’s lighting is atmospheric. Under John Tiffany’s routine direction, Steve Kazee is handsome as Boy, and Cristin Milioti sedulous as Girl. Others provide some typical Irish or Czech local color, but only the sporadic presence of gratuitous Czech supertitles is at all notable. I think one should beware of plays whose leads are called generically Guy and Girl.
“The Big Meal” by Dan LeFranc should pay royalties to Thornton Wilder’s estate. Like Wilder’s “Long Christmas Dinner,” it is about a dinner eaten by several generations of one family whose members come, eat, briefly interact and vanish, played—often confusingly–by the same actors. To be sure, the dinners here are at a restaurant, and it isn’t Christmas.
The first half of the play is comic; the second, earnest, verging on maudlin. LeFranc is the winner of sundry awards and fellowships, which nowadays doesn’t mean much. No one in the cast is bad; no one, not even the veteran Anita Gillette, especially noteworthy.
Sam Gold, the rising young director and another recipient of numerous honors, who recently made an idiosyncratic mess of “Look Back in Anger,” staged this rather better, but what are we to make of characters named, even more ominously, Woman 1, 2 and 3, Man 1, 2 and 3, and yes, Boy and Girl (who are at least real children) plus Server, a mute waitress who plunks down food with considerable animosity.
The show lasts only 85 minutes that could easily pass for a couple of hours.
Photos by and courtesy of Joan Marcus.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
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