NEW YORK — At the top of the Broadway transfer of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Jesus Christ Superstar,” there's a clever little pre-curtain announcement, spoken by the show's director,
, and wisely retained from the hit Canadian production last summer: “Unwrap your candy any time you want,” it roughly goes. “The score will drown you out.”
It's a typically shrewd bit of baby boomer-friendly, semiotic manipulation from McAnuff, signaling to an audience — an audience that laughs and relaxes — many crucial things at once. You will be watching a self-aware production that appreciates the iconic history of a rock score that was out on bedroom-friendly vinyl before it was onstage. The show will be appropriately loud. The mood will be upbeat, crucifixion or no crucifixion. And the next two hours will not be spent trying to run away from the inevitably camp properties of a pastiche-like 1970s show that has the crowd kissing off a suicidal Judas with a breezy “so long,” and Herod tempting Jesus with an invitation to walk across his swimming pool.
As he did in Stratford last summer, McAnuff embraces one of the musical theater's most unusual, famous, bizarre, historically audacious and, in this instance, thoroughly enjoyable properties with a production remarkably in sync with the material. The savvy set design, by Robert Brill, uses platforms, staircases and catwalks that, with the help of Paul Tazewell's use of punky but oft-metallic attire, put one in mind of the show's loose alignment with Deep Purple and the other British rock goliaths of its thunderous era. And then, during the spectacular crucifixion scene, he uses those ubiquitous news-crawls that fill the proscenium with text and, crucially, make you ponder the staying power of the words and persona of Jesus Christ, cutting though the very kind of noise we've just been enjoying. All of the classic song stylings feel like they're in place and respectfully wailed by actors happy to sing their faces off.
But those who remember the show's original incarnations will also sense that these clever Canadians have pushed the tempos of numbers like “Gethsemane” just a little, moving things along. It is, most certainly, a tonally adroit and enormously effective production of a show that's much trickier than most people think.
Distinctively, McAnuff and his trio of leading actors focus on the love-triangle among Jesus, Judas and Mary: All three stare at one another constantly, with Paul Nolan's terrific Son of God the inscrutable center, a man on whom others can project whatever they want to project. If they had some cobalt makeup, they'd fit right in at the Blue Man Group. But it's a clever way to go because it injects sexual tension into the biblical narrative.
Nolan is, without doubt, a beautiful Jesus to remember (and he's well supported, at various points, by Bruce Dow's perfidious Herod and Tom Hewitt's Pilate, at once terrified and crisply lethal). At Wednesday night's press performance (among others this week), Jeremy Kushnier replaced the ailing Josh Young in the role of Judas, although I saw Young in Stratford last summer.
Kushnier, whose work was formidably intense, rich and complex for the work of an understudy, does not come with the same Goth intensity as Young's more sensual Judas, pushing the disloyal Apostle more toward personal panic than besotted manipulation. Both approaches have their strengths and so does Chilina Kennedy's earnest Mary, even if her work seems less central and layered than it did in Canada. But by eschewing any shades of folk or billowy sweetness in favor of an all-consuming need for Jesus' attention, she nails the famous ballads, “I Don't Know How to Love Him” and “Could We Start Again Please?” which is what people want from her the most in the theater and are the two most common questions people ask of Jesus in the world outside.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” plays at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., New York. Call 877-250-2929 or visit superstaronbroadway.com.