La Jolla, CA---Lest anyone forget, there is the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice tried and true “Jesus Christ Superstar” of the seventies and then there is the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice/ Des McAnuff “Jesus Christ Superstar” of the 20’s: 2011/2012 that is.
Of course the lyrics (Tim Rice) and the music (Andrew Lloyd Webber) of this 70’s rock opera are the same. And the story, based on New Testament Biblical sources that trace the last week of Jesus of Nazareth’s (Paul Nolan) life as the Jewish prophet/ king/savior/rabble rouser and healer is also the same. (“Heaven On Their Minds”) What’s startling different about it is the clarity, the look, the approach and the overblown glitz of this new incarnation by McAnuff and his designers.
The year is 33 AD, seven days before the Passover observance and well within the time frame for Jesus’ friend and compatriot Judas Iscariot (Josh Young), to betray him and turn him over to the reigning Roman generals, Caiaphas (Marcus Nance) in particular. Caiaphas, a Jewish High Priest, appointed by the Romans to squelch Jesus for fear of his becoming too popular, conspires with Judas to keep him informed of his whereabouts. He is more than willing to get rid of the troublemaker. (“This Jesus Must Die”)
The plot thickens when Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy) disciple/prostitute/mystic/would be lover who comes to the aid of Jesus (“Everything’s Alright”) when all the men in his life abandon him, much to the chagrin of Judas. And so, begins the love triangle between Jesus, Mary and Judas and or Judas, as some might have it Judas and his affection for Jesus, as we are led to believe in this stunning and thoughtful new picture by director McAnuff.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” has been around the corner and back for many moons. It has played in San Diego in touring shows and local community shows. Starlight Musical Theatre presented a solid “Superstar” in 2006 and was done as a concert in 1971 in the Old Convention Hall. It was the first of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musicals to be produced on the professional stage. It opened on Broadway in 1971, over objections from some religious groups. One can understand why.
The musical isn’t intended for religious zealots, per se. It’s more about who we are as a people than it is about the biblical account of Jesus' death. That said, not much has changed since biblical times when it comes to getting rid of someone you don’t happen to be in agreement with. Religion is always a good litmus test to check out the waters of who’s in and who’s out. Fortunately as the case may be, McAnuff has staged this production with such clarity and verve that one doesn’t have to be hit over the head to enjoy it for just its merits.
The history value, not with standing, might not be that cut and dry for those in or out of the know but it does make an immediate and highly dramatic impact when all is said and done especially Judas’ death by hanging, and those thirty nine lashes ordered by a pompous Pontius Pilate (Jeremy Kushnier) to Christ’s body before he is crucified! (“Trial By Pilate/39 Lashes”)
Speaking of merits, it’s difficult to separate the absolutely dazzling cast/ensemble from the superior technical designs/ designers. One thing McAnuff can never be accused of, and that’s not knowing talent when he sees it. This is the same former Playhouse artistic director that brought us “Jersey Boys”, “700 Hundred Sunday’s” with Billy Crystal, “The Who’s Tommy”, “A Walk in the Woods” and “Big River” for starters.
Now with Paul Nolan as the rather confused, contemplative and standoffish Jesus and with the Romans circling the wagons under the initial reluctance then arrogance of Kushnier’s Pontius Pilate, the deception of Josh Young’s pushy and oft times wildly accusing Judas Iscariot, the softness of Chilina Kennedy’s Mary Magdalene, the determination of Marcus Nance’s Caiaphas and the outrageousness of Bruce Dow’s King Herod, McAnuff’s rock musical, well…rocks. There isn’t another word to describe it.
The strength of the ensemble is noteworthy because there isn’t a weak link anywhere. The voices scream to be herd from Young’s “Heaven On Their Minds” to “Damned For all Time/Blood Money” and if you are in the business of comparisons, Chilina Kennedy’s “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” measures up very well against Yvonne Elliman’s hit single of the time. Marcus Nance has one of the most resounding bass baritone voices heard in some time and Bruce Dowd’s performance of King Herod is another brilliant execution of stagecraft as he mocks Jesus in what is most likely the all taunting, cynical and deprecating ‘King of The Jews’ (“Herod’s Song”)
Robert Brill’s set design is another industrial looking masterpiece with metal ramps, moveable metal steps for stadium use for the crowd scenes to whipping block for Jesus to Herod’s gaudy Las Vegas digs. Paul Tazewell’s eclectic costume looks range from what some might conceive as biblical everyday wear to black leather Nazi looking Roman General coats to Taliban covered headdress and half face coverings (not my favorite look) to glitzy, sparkly vests along with lush velvets (King Herod) to Christ’s all white ensemble (depending on what’s happening).
Howell Binkley’s lighting design and Sean Nieuwenhuis’ state of the art video design projections bring out the rock ’n roll elements while communicating the time, place and situations, especially the 39 lashes that splash across the screen in bold red streaks. Choreographer Lisa Shriver keeps the ensemble action moving to fit the mood of the story and Rick Fox’s musical direction with his 11 piece band in pit revs up the amps just loud enough for some patrons to keep their ear plugs (handed out for those who needed some protection against the loudness) in place.
This particular show is The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production. McAnuff, as you will recall, left La Jolla to become artistic director of the Canadian based Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It is scheduled to move from here to Broadway, and we are grateful for the connection to have had the opportunity to see it before it makes that move.
Any day we have a chance to see a Des McAnuff production is a good day. It’s an even better day if we can see it in our own backyard.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: through Dec 31st
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Production Type: Rock Opera
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD Campus, San Diego
Ticket Prices: $58.00-$130.00
Venue: Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD Campus, S.S.