In a time when religion and politics seem to be fatefully intertwined, along comes a startlingly relevant musical that is—oddly—40 years old. What began life as a concept album, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar became something of a sensation with a popular album and Top 40 hit single. After a fairly successful Broadway run and movie adaptation, Jesus Christ Superstar has been a mainstay in theatres around the globe ever since.
With the arrival of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of JCS, however, this is the first time in decades that the play will be headed back to Broadway. Already praised by Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, the new production of JCS is a savvy take that amps up the political aspects of the story and ends with a knowing punch to the gut.
Set in 33 A.D.—but with modern contrivances that relate the story to modern times—the new JCS has all the usual suspects: Judas Iscariot (Josh Young) is one of the many disciples of Jesus Christ (Paul Nolan)—a prophet who has been teaching the Jews how to live more peaceful and all-loving lives. Having performed a miracle or two, he has become quite the attraction and has garnered many followers. While Judas firmly believes in what Jesus has to say, he’s uncomfortable with his ensuing popularity and worries that it’s starting to go to his head. He also isn’t happy that Jesus has been carrying on with Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy), a former prostitute who dotes on Jesus.
Taking place five days before Passover, the musical shows how the Romans set out to destroy Jesus by using Judas to lead them to him. Meanwhile, Jesus continues to spread the good word, but at the same time has startling moments where he admonishes his followers (and non-followers) for the acts that they do. When he is too overwhelmed by the lepers who want his healing touch, he finally screams “HEAL YOURSELVES!” Apropos for modern times where people look to blame others for their misfortunes or who are always looking for something outside of themselves to make things right. When he arrives at a temple and finds exotic dancers, gambling and a marketplace set up, Jesus turns over tables and hollers for everyone to get out. Perhaps he isn’t the most gentle of Jesuses, but it does go to prove that he was human and that even as the son of God, he had his own moments of weakness.
As the story goes, Jesus is taken away on the night of The Last Supper and eventually crucified. The show ends with the title song “Superstar” and a quiet moment on the cross as he dies.
The new production is well-executed and while the overall take of the show is a bit chilly and industrial, it’s the performances of the exquisite cast that send this play into excellence. Paul Nolan’s Jesus is overtly calm and collected. He plays Jesus as a man that allows people to take care of him, but is also willing to give of himself completely. He has his moments of passionate anger and, of course, doubt as shown in the difficult and powerful power ballad “Gesthemene” that Nolan nailed to perfection.
As directed by Des McAnuff there is also a hint that Mary is—indeed—Jesus’girlfriend as the two are frequently shown walking into different situations holding hands. While he never fully expresses his possible romantic interest in Mary—she does. In the now classic ballad “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” Kennedy’s Mary breaks the hard shell she has portrayed Mary as having and admonishes herself for loving a man she knows she can’t have. This stronger Mary is an interesting choice as the character is usually a little softer. Here, she doesn’t put up with anyone’s bullshit—especially from Judas who isn’t keen on their relationship. Notable are also Tom Hewitt as Pontious Pilate who doesn’t approve of Jesus, but kind of doesn’t care what he does either. In this he shows cocky power, but also a weakness in allowing the opinions of others to direct his actions. Bruce Dow is excellent as the flamboyant King Herod whose “Herod’s Song” is a giddy highlight. Lee Siegel’s Simon does a show-stopping job with “Simon Zealotes”—a rousing number that blew the roof off of the theatre and was the moment the play really came alive.
The showiest role of Webber’s rock opera, however, is Josh Young’s Judas. Fervent and misguided, Judas is simply a man who believes in his friend, but who is fearful the more Jesus gets popular, the more that popularity will backfire on the Jews. In his eyes, his betrayal of him is a sacrifice for the greater good and Young’s ardent portrayal of him is electric.
While this new take makes the story completely relevant to today’s political landscape, it does lack the emotional power that it might need. At times I wasn’t sure what the company’s perspective was for the story. That said, by the end it started to come together with a point-of-view. Seeing Jesus standing above the audience preaching about love and compassion only to have his words drowned out by the incessant singing of his followers was telling. As he is wheeled around on a platform—continuing to speak but being met with people praising him but not hearing him—the meaning of this updated JCS was clear: That in today’s landscape, there are many that praise his name, but when a majority of them aren’t really living the life he preaches about, isn’t the point all but lost? It’s a brilliant bit of staging that leads to a quiet end with Jesus on the cross talking to God as Mary watches on. It’s a lovely final moment to a pretty remarkable evening of a brilliantly sung score and an interesting take on a story often told—but rarely ever really “heard.”
Jesus Christ Superstar plays through Dec. 31 at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. lajollaplayhouse.org