The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Thursday, March 29, 2012

FCS: Jesus Christ Superstar


Quick facts:
  • Show: Jesus Christ Superstar
  • Broadway Revival
  • Date: Wednesday, March 28, 2012
  • Time: 2:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: open-ended
  • Venue: Neil Simon Theater
  • Running time: 1:55 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Good.  Orchestra, stage left, under the lip of the balcony, but not enough to obstruct the view
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: Jeremy Kushnier in the role of Judas; Matt Stokes in the role of Priest (usually played by Jeremy Kushnier)
Know someone working the show? No.

Synopsis: The story of the last week in the life of Jesus, and his time with his followers and his adversaries - told as only Andrew Lloyd Webber could!

My thoughts: Remember in my first post how I talked about how much I value creativity in everything, but particularly in the theater?  Well, it pains me to say it, because I really do love Jesus Christ Superstar, and I was genuinely excited to see this production, but the production lacked in genuine creativity.  Overall, it seemed like an attempt to make the film version from 2000 into a new live theater production.  It had the same general set design, lighting palette, and costume styles.

Choreography by Lisa Shriver was by far the worst part of the show.  When it didn't look like untrained, amateur (and goofy) liturgical dance, it reminded me of the show choir choreography that I was doing in high school in the mid '90s.  While the choreography we did then was fine for high school show choir, for a Broadway production in 2012 it was simply stale and silly.

The costume design by Paul Tazewell (and in general, the character portrayal) was a mixed bag.  Interestingly, the disciples' costumes seemed to have been inspired by the recent Occupy Wall Street movement - or at least a kind of "Romanized" version of them.  This lent a tone of much-needed relevance to the production.  The priests were in boring, Matrix-esque costumes, exactly like the 2000 film version of the show.  The Roman soldiers, strangely, seemed to have come to the stage directly from a leather fetish night club.  Jesus looked like a dirty Warner Sallman Head of Christ brought to life.  One really interesting aspect of the costume design was the use of the color blue to set Judas' character apart from the other members of the production.  If the production as a whole had been clever at all, I might have considered that it was meant to represent an allusion to Mary, the mother of Christ - as if to suggest a role for Judas birthing a new reality in his role as betrayer.  It might have been an interesting choice.  But the general lack of creativity elsewhere in the production leaves me skeptical about that being a conscious thought on the part of anyone in the creative team.  But who knows?!

What I would have called Projection Design, the Playbill lists as Video Design by Sean Nieuwenhuis.  Perhaps one of my learned readers and friends can help explain the difference to me - though it certainly seemed mostly projected to me.  Regardless, regarding the video design: one general criticism that might be made of Jesus Christ Superstar as a whole might be that it can be a little too literal in its treatment of the story of Jesus - particularly when its literalism isn't founded entirely on the biblical account.  The heavily text-centered projections make the show even more overtly literal than it might have been otherwise.  It goes so far as to assign days of the week - and even hours of the day! - to various scenes within the show.  Live theater is not - and should not attempt to be - a documentary!  Most of the projected words (days of the week, times of day, site locations, etc.) would have been better left out altogether.  These things could have been more effectively conveyed through lighting, set changes, and a little reliance on popular understandings of the story of Jesus.  I know my level of education and understanding doesn't reflect that of the general population, but still.  Most people at least know some of it.  And if they don't, let the artistry of the theater convey it.  Writing it on the wall is just lazy.

Projections were also employed to expand on the cast a certain points.  For example - in the Palm Sunday scene, white silhouettes of people waving palm branches helped to expand the limitations of the cast and convey a sense of a larger crowd.  It was good story-telling, but it did become quickly overused.  The silhouetted figures were used in several scenes throughout the show, and at various times took on multiple, bright colors.  After a while, I found myself thinking I was looking at an Apple iPod commercial from a few years ago.

The most serious problem that I had in the production was in the temple scene - when Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers.  The story is about money changers - NOT SEXUAL IMMORALITY!  There were scantily clad men and women on stairs on opposite sides of the stage, attempting to dance suggestively throughout the song.  It was an unnecessary, unhelpful, and frankly offensive editorial change that attempted to impose Victorian-era values on an entirely different problem of the first century.  Furthermore, the problem of greed is still very real and relevant!  Why not use the scene to speak to that?  It was a lost opportunity, and the creative team should be ashamed for letting it slip by, and for trying to change the story as they did.

My favorite song in the show, "Could We Start Again Please", was nearly ruined through two serious flaws: first, the disappointing vocal style of Chilina Kennedy in the role of Mary Magdalene.  This is one of the most important roles in the show, and Kennedy seemed not up to the task at this performance.  The second set-back in the song was the lighting design by Howell Binkley.  Several spot lights shone on Jesus downstage center, and the rest of the stage remained fully lit as well.  It was too bright.  It didn't allow space for reflection - the whole point of the song.  The scene should have shifted dramatically through this thought of a song.  Instead, it seemed to remain as a kind of midday aside.

My last area of serious criticism is in the Herod scene.  It was silly.  And not in a creative, playful way, but in an "it's been done exactly that way a dozen times before" way.  Moreover, Herod, played by Bruce Dow, was a vocally weak member of the cast.

Lest I be accused of hating the production entirely, let me move on to some of the bright spots of the production.  The brightest of them all was Jeremy Kushnier in the role of Judas.  Wow.  Though an understudy, he was talented, spot on in his performance, meticulous, and passionate.  I could listen to him sing all night, and I will look for opportunities to see him perform again!  In this production (or at least this performance) it's fascinating to have seen Judas arise as the real star of the show.  And clearly I wasn't the only one to think so - the applause roared the most, loudest, and longest for Mr. Kushnier - more so than even for Paul Nolan (in the role of Jesus).

Another bright spot was Mike Nadajewski in the role of Peter.  Though I didn't get to hear him sing much, he sang beautifully, and I longed for more.  Similarly was Tom Hewitt in the role of Pontius Pilate.  He had a commanding voice, fitting to his role, and was a delight to hear.

The scene around Judas' death was on the verge of clever.  As his guilt overcomes him, he climbs up a ladder out of the audience's view.  Then, moments later, as his song ends, we hear the loud thud of his death and the thirty pieces of silver fall from out of sight above center stage.  If the scene had ended here, the effect would have been made.  Instead, a dummy falls hanging above center stage with his legs dangling.  It would have been sufficient story telling without the dummy.  With the dummy, it crossed the line to overkill.  Literally.

The brightest spot of all, however, was the creative choice made by Des McAnuff (director) in the final scene, John 19:41.  The scene is simply orchestration.  Time.  The crucifixion has happened, and it's up to the director to decide how to move on.  It's been done in many ways, but McAnuff handled it with more subtlety and grace than I've ever seen or imagined it.  *SPOILER ALERT*  The text-heavy projections ALMOST (only almost, mind you) begin to pay off.  As Jesus hangs dead on the cross, a biblical passage begins to scroll across a kind of Times Square-style news ticker ribbon that runs around the set.  Then, projected elsewhere on the set, another passage scrolls.  Then another, and another, and many more until a kind of visualized cacophony of the story of Jesus sprawls in every direction.  Jesus is quietly and mysteriously lowered from the cross, the cast emerges from the darkness, and they all walk downstage in silence.  By the time they've reached the edge, Jesus is clothed as just another person, and the show ends.  It was beautiful and theologically sound.  I was deeply moved.

While my general thoughts and reflections and responses have been pretty critical of this production, I do actually approach the show with the full understanding of how difficult it must be to mount a revival of a show that is so deeply embedded into the fabric of our popular culture.  Because of that reality, standards for this show are incredibly high.  The creative team must decide whether they prefer to approach the production in a new way, or to simply give the people what they expect and (at least think they) want.  Of course, either approach runs the risk of garnering criticism.  Sadly, this production seems to have opted for the safer, more expected approach.  I, for one, find that uninspiring.

On the other hand, the story of Jesus and Andrew Lloyd Webber's and Tim Rice's writing all triumph in the end anyway.  Despite the glaring problems of the production, I was still deeply moved.  I still applauded hard at the end.  And, while I can honestly say that I loved seeing this revival, and that it was an afternoon very well spent, all of that is in spite of some severe limitations on the part of the general design and perspective of the production as a whole.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again? No.  Once was enough.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who? Eh...  I don't know.  Probably not.  I'd direct people to the film version from 2000.  It's cheaper, you can watch it again and again, and the performances are stronger.
  • Twitter review: You won't regret seeing it.  You also won't regret missing it.

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