The production of Jesus Christ Superstar that began life at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival last summer had its Broadway debut Thursday night, to mixed reviews.
Most of the original cast — Paul Nolan as Jesus, Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene and Josh Young as Judas — accompanied Superstar on its journey, first to the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and then on to New York. Stratford’s outgoing artistic director Des McAnuff helmed the splashy production which was a hit of the 2011 season.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote the music for the original which first opened on Broadway in 1971, was among the fans of McAnuff’s production. Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera credited with helping to reinvent musical theatre for the modern age and tells the story of the final week of Christ’s life.
New York critics were divided between those who found this resurrection over-the-top glitzy and those who felt it hit just the right note.
The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney calls the production "an entertaining guilty pleasure," admitting he admires its ‘70s aesthetic, complete with "fat, funky synthesizer sounds, folky guitars, wailing rock falsettos and hippified lyrics."
He particularly admired Young’s Judas Iscariot for his "electrifying vocals and brooding presence."
'I have to confess to finding the show alternately hilarious and preposterous.' —Christopher Isherwood, New York Times
But the New York Times’ Christopher Isherwood found fault with the original Superstar story, calling Tim Rice’s lyrics dated and often "flat-footed."
"I have to confess to finding the show alternately hilarious and preposterous — if often infectiously melodic — during the two hours’ busy traffic of McAnuff’s brisk and lucid staging," Isherwood said in his review.
Isherwood was not keen on the show’s design, saying it looked like a mildly naughty floor show at Caesars Palace.
"The kitsch apotheosis is surely the garish scene in which Jesus chases the money lenders from the temple. Here McAnuff dresses the chorus in the costume designer Paul Tazewell’s leather harnesses and gold hot pants (that’s the men) and slinky minidresses," he wrote.
Associated Press reviewer Mark Kennedy also disliked the costumes, saying the cowls and tunics seemed to be drawn from a Star Wars film. He also found the projections, ladders and catwalks an unnecessary distraction.
Praise for Nolan's Jesus
However, he praised the power triangle between Jesus, Mary and Judas that lends dynamism to a story with a foretold conclusion.
"Nolan's Jesus starts quietly, often just staring out through his long hair like a baked Jedi, but finds an edge as the show builds, showing irritation and flashes of anger," Kennedy wrote.
"Judas' torment at his own betrayal — fated and yet also chosen — is so good it's visceral. Marcus Nance as Caiaphas brings a regality to the role and a voice so low it seems to scrape the floor. And Kennedy as Mary is bright and intense," he continued.
The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones called McAnuff’s production "shrewd" and self-aware, saying the audience can relax because the show does justice to the original rock score.
"McAnuff embraces one of the musical theatre's most unusual, famous, bizarre, historically audacious and, in this instance, thoroughly enjoyable properties with a production remarkably in sync with the material.
Newsday's Linda Winer thought McAnuff's production slick but grandiose, saying he overlooked the irreverance and fun of the script and created something far too serious.
"Lloyd Webber and, especially, lyricist Rice wrote a prescient, even edgy and cannily preposterous commentary on the cult of personality, a cautionary tale about how celebrity can poison the most deeply felt social movement," she wrote.
The Globe’s Kelly Nestruck, who also reviewed the original Stratford production, speculated that McAnuff’s production may not be razzle-dazzle enough for Broadway.
"His revelatory production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's great rock musical is very Stratford, Ontario," Nestruck writes. "It is subtle rather than bombastic, and very human-sized. The voices are giant, but the acting is intimate and internal – and, if anything, has become more so since the summer."