I first saw the 1973 Norman Jewison production of Jesus Christ Superstar in my sophomore year of high school. Its “on-location” setting and rock-opera irreverence appealed immensely to my impressionable teen brain. The songs were frequent earworms (long before that term was coined), some even becoming favorite catch-phrases (Hey! What’s the buzz?).
For those not familiar with the story, it is more or less a retelling of the last six days of the life of Jesus Christ from the point of view of Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene.
My wife and I are not much for Broadway shows. Our last show was either Les Miserables or Miss Saigon, not counting the few times we saw Patrick Stewart’s Christmas Carol. But we check from time to time in case some gem pops up that we might like. And so it was that my wonderful wife found that a Jesus Christ Superstar revival had successfully played in California and would be in preview on Broadway through the end of March. Knowing my fondness for the play, she purchased tickets for Saturday, March 10th.
I must admit, I was a little apprehensive. Never having seen the original play, I had only the movie as my frame of reference. I wondered how the set designs would live up to those in the movie. Walking into the Neil Simon Theater, I cringed slightly as I saw the austere black set with steel ladders and catwalk. What kind of reinterpretation would this be? I read the libretto from cover to cover to distract myself, including the interview with the “currently unemployed” Mr. Webber. I wish I was as unemployed as he is. 😉
The lights dimmed, and the actors appeared through a stage trick of lighting and curtains. The fellow next to me said, “Whoa!” A large movie screen displayed the year, 2012, and counted down to 33 as then the actors advanced to the edge of the stage. They dispersed and my second cringe-moment followed as what I assumed were Roman soldiers appeared. Only their costumes looked more like the props I had seen in the fictitious Atlantis excavation in the Bahamas. I imagined the upcoming 2 hours would be chock full of strange costumes and oddly twisted versions of the songs I knew so well.
But I was not to be disappointed so. The Atlantean soldiers disappeared and the rest of the musical was nothing short of fantastic. And not even the American Idol contestant nearby, who had to sing aloud to nearly every one of the songs during the first half, could dampen my enjoyment.
The set design turned out to be genius in its austerity, not distracting from the lively choreography and singing that was as good as it was nostalgic.
The music was spruced up with a more of an 80s rock flair, losing none of its earwormy charm in the process.
Perhaps because I am so used to the movie version and subsequent CD tracks, I found the pacing a bit rushed. My wife commented to me later that she had sensed the same, and possibly for the same reasons. There were a few very minor glitches that will likely be ironed out by the end of the preview period, and these were very minor indeed.
Overall, I highly recommend this production. Preview ends on March 22nd after which ticket prices go up.