Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: When Classics Go Bad

Three is a magical number. Three is the number of actors playing Jesus on Broadway right now. Three is the number of Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals on Broadway right now. And three is approximately the number of memorable moments from the newest revival of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. JCS is a fire starter in the world of mainstream rock operas. The story is timeless and the music is edgy. Sure this revival of JCS is timeless and edgy, but it’s quite possible it has gone too far.
Des McAnuff’s sleek and streamlined version of the rock opera has some stunning stage pictures, but it’s quite hard to find them within all the organized chaos. There may be an ensemble member or five who don’t really need to be on the stage. Take the overstuffed ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar and shove them on the empty boat over at Anything Goes and perhaps you’ll have two happy musicals! One issue with the production I found was the score is stuffed with some recognizable hit numbers, but in between those numbers there are the “throw-away” songs. I don’t think I was alone in thinking they were throw-aways as the audience dimly applauded, that is when given the chance. But when those smash songs ended, there was a roar in the crowd. An uneven reception does not make a successful production. But through the mediocrity was a standout. And that standout was visible during his first song. I think it’s safe to say that upon finishing the final note of “Heave on Their Minds,” Josh Young solidified his Tony nomination. Young may not have the star titular character, but he’s definitely the focus as Judas. Young’s voice is incomparable. The boy has range! You could call him a classically trained Adam Lambert, who I personally would love to hear sing the role of Judas. But we have to remember, this isn’t Judas’s story. We’re there for Jesus. Like Young, Paul Nolan has a similarly strong voice. Both Nolan and Young have a pop rock style in their voice that very much fit this production. Beyond Nolan’s voice, there was still something to be desired. Maybe it’s just how the character is written, but Nolan just seemed to be missing something. Chilina Kennedy’s Mary Magdalene seemed to run across the stage quite a bit, that is until she sang “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” when she was stationary for her big number. It was a good performance for a subpar production, unfortunately for her she was overshadowed by the big voices of Nolan and Young. Once her big moment finished, she was very much forgettable. Many of the secondary characters, including Tom Hewitt’s Pontius Pilate, Lee Siegal’s Simon Zealotes, and Aaron Walpole’s Annas, used their time on stage wisely, singing their songs well. But it was Bruce Dow’s King Herod who stopped the show. Though the production number seemed entirely out of place in this piece, his “Herod’s Song” was magnificent and a wonderful moment to remember. You wanted him to stay on stage much longer. Especially since he didn’t even get his final line on stage but behind the set. Quite unfortunate.
Robert Brill’s set looked cool. It was very modern and purposeful perhaps even borrowing the second level left over from former Neil Simon Theater tenant Ragtime. It was so modern, there was a ticker, like the ones you’d find out by Times Square, that flashed across before each scene telling us exactly time and place. The design served McAnuff’s intention, but may have been better suited for a completely different show. Paul Tazewell’s costume seemed like Post-Apocalypse meets Urban Renewal meets reject Rent costume meets actual time period. Again, the costumes looked cool and fit the intentions, they just seemed lost and incongruent, especially when the ensemble is clad in leather S&M apparel and during “Herod’s Song” when we get some recycled Joseph... costumes. There is little to truly say about the lighting except for the fact of its use during pre-show and intermission. Unless the Neil Simon Theater lacks house lights, Howard Binkley used two booms and an assortment of other lights to fill the house with light, blinding me in the process. This is not the first time I’ve been blinded by a Binkley design. I sat in a very unfortunate seat during the West Side Story when I was blinded during the balcony seat and not being able to see “Tonight.” This was most definitely a choice.
In a big season for theater, Jesus Christ Superstar will be one of those forgotten productions. There was no reward or payoff in the end. This production is better suited for an edgy regional house. If ever there was proof that a notable title will put butts in the seats, this is it.  Audiences will come flocking leaving more deserving shows to fall in the shadows.