It comes as no surprise that this revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar provides a measure of enjoyment. Like the hit Four Seasons musical Jersey Boys, which faces it at Broadway and 52nd Street, JCS has been staged by Des McAnuff, who is the artistic director of the Canadian Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
At least since his Broadway production of The Who’s Tommy, McAnuff has made a hallmark of crisp pacing. With Tommy, however, another rock opera with distinct messianic fervour, the director had the advantage of material that was purer in its melodies.
With Jesus Christ Superstar, McAnuff must present a story that is neither as powerfully moving as its Gospel inspirations nor as savagely humour-laden as its pop-culture followers – from Monty Python’s Life of Brian on.
Yet this production, which originated at the Canadian Stratford, makes as striking a case for the show’s vitality as we are likely to get. Simple metal scaffolding encases the proceedings, with sliding staircases enlisted for multiple uses. Digital read-outs zip across the structures.
Played by Paul Nolan, Jesus is swathed in pale robes. Whether the hue of virginal innocence is best suited to convey a man conceived as humanly flawed and drawn to a prostitute, Mary Magdalene, is another matter.
Nolan transcends this one-dimensionality with a strong portrait, musically cresting with “Gethsemane,” whose anthem-rock style jars somewhat with the mood of a moment that the Gospels describe as “overwhelmed with sorrow”. But if the aim of Lloyd Webber and Rice was literalism, the show’s plot – an account of Jesus’s final days – would be an old-fashioned Passion Play rather than something that at its Broadway premiere in 1971 could still seem groovy.
Of the other actors, the Judas of Josh Young, especially in the Las Vegas-y “Superstar” number, emerges as the most pleasurably sung. Tom Hewitt, as Pontius Pilate, is the only one to create a character not hemmed in by the music. Bruce Dow takes Herod for a campy, vaudeville spin, a routine dotted with Nicki Minaj courtesans and at least one chorus boy in leather gear.