In the lead up to the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Gounod’s Faust, tongues wagged over the fact that the production’s director, Des McAnuff, has been jetting back and forth across the country during rehearsals. This was due to competing assignments in New York and La Jolla, California, where his production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar was simultaneously in rehearsals at the La Jolla Playhouse for its West Coast premiere. (The show, which originated at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is scheduled to arrive on Broadway in the Spring.) And while some commentators felt that the Met’s Faust may not have been getting all the attention it deserved, after seeing Superstar on a recent Sunday, I can tell you there’s little reason to believe this. On a basic level, the two productions are essentially the same in design. Apparently for today’s audience the distance between heaven and hell on stage is minimal.
McAnuff’s Jesus Christ Superstar incorporates a metal catwalk that runs along both sides and the back of the stage with stairs on either side. The rear of the stage is dominated by a large blind that is used for projections in what is otherwise a vacant space. Sound familiar? The only way you can tell the two shows from one another without a program on first glance would be the costumes. While McAnuff’s Faust is tastefully robed in the first half of the 20th century, Superstar has gone the way of a futuristic dystopia by way of Jerusalem. Actually, Weber’s music would probably give things away as well. It’s 70s rock licks sounded about as mannered as Gounod’s grand French operatic tradition. And whereas McAnuff’s Faust often suffers from too little stage business, Superstar periodically succumbs to too much. The energy level is high, no doubt, but the historical accuracy of the apostles tumbling moves when approaching the savior may be hotly contested by some of the faithful.
That’s not to say that the production isn’t effective at times. It builds on Webber and Rice’s initial idea of casting Christ as a modern-day rock star in retelling the events of the seven days leading up to his crucifixion. That sense is maintained especially in the all-out finale with its neon lit cross and Judas in dark blue skin-tight sequins. But there are just as many moments when the whole thing looks silly or even amateurish. For instance, most people have been to San Diego enough times to know there are plenty of hot guys there that could serve as leather clad go-go boys when Jesus comes to cleanse the temple. Jesus Christ Superstar takes itself very seriously and McAnuff isn’t afraid of building on Webber and Rice's broad strokes to differentiate between good and evil. McAnuff's vision steers perilously towards the farcical at times despite its good moments.
The pacing is very tight, however, and the evening races by at just around two hours even with an intermission. In the performance I attended, Jesus was played by Jeremy Kushnier with an appropriate serenity that bordered on ambivalence. Josh Young had the meatier Judas Iscariot part and at times seemed to be channeling Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter. Chilina Kennedy’s Mary Magdalene was the evening’s most Broadway-ready performance and was vocally the most solid of anyone else on stage. Will the show fly when it arrives in New York? Maybe. But I think it probably needs to feel a bit less like Rhythm Nation: 1814 if it’s going to make it. Or they could just cast Janet Jackson.