July 13, 2024

The problem with Jesus Christ Superstar struck me at La Jolla Playhouse during intermission: like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt it’s meant to be heard and not necessarily seen. Originally created as a concept album, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s score is by and large pop-rock music. Fun to hear and even more fun to sing along with it’s not necessarily dramatic in the way music in the theater needs to be in order to hold the interest of the viewer and create a continuity of story. The contemporary pop-rock song by tradition dwells in a single emotion for three minutes; the theater song, when successful, takes character and listener on a journey which moves the story forward. In listening to an album we can make great jumps of time, space, and logic without a second thought – in the theater it falls upon the musical’s director to take over the role of our imagination and somehow make a cohesive omelette from so many scrambled eggs. For Des McAnuff, the Tony-winning director and former Artistic Director at La Jolla, that clarity comes mostly in the form of a “modern” conceptualization of mixed metaphors that somehow think a dinky news zipper and a handful of projections will somehow put the viewer in the mind of Tahir Square, or any of the social media-driven uprisings that grabbed our attention in 2011. Jesus as leader of a flash mob? I dont think so. The cast of amateurs doesn’t help matters. With the exception of Josh Young and Jeremy Kushnier as a morally conflicted Judas and Pontius Pilate, respectively, the cast acts as though they wandered in off a tour of Godspell. Then again, Judas and Pilate are the only characters given anything resembling a journey – each trying to do the right thing - so of course they come off a bit more successfully. Poor Jesus, he has nothing to do but look holy until his big 11 o’clock number with God – I mean Dad. In the title role Paul Nolan does an admirable job of staring vacantly into space. Let’s just say I left the theater humming – but vastly underwhelmed by the lack of cohesion. I expect it’ll always be so until a production comes along where the director’s imagination allows me to retain mine. In fact, the one and only successful Superstar I’ve seen was put on a few years ago with the singer Peaches. Talk about radical: it was a bare stage with just her and a piano, trusting the audience to fill in all the blanks. She sang the whole show on her own – just like I’ve been known to do in the shower or basement – before being joined onstage by the a handful of dancers to revel in the title number. It was perfection.

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