'Jesus Christ Superstar' blends biblical themes, rock music, and contemporary attitudes in superb storytelling
The MUNY opens its 99th season with a spectacular production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic rock take on the last days of Jesus. The songs are driving, memorable, and serve the storytelling exceptionally well. The performances, featuring Constantine Maroulis as Judas Iscariot, Bryce Ryness as Jesus of Nazareth, and an incomparable Ciara Renée as Mary Magdalene, are phenomenal. Emotionally driven and resonant, they easily read from the front of the stage to the back of the house without feeling overplayed. In short, the musical is a spectacular, crowd-pleasing open to a celebratory season.
Jesus Christ Superstar traces the growing popularity of Jesus, his persecution by the Caiaphas, Annas and other priests, his meeting with King Herod, and his eventual arrest, trial, and crucifixion under Pontius Pilate with help from Judas. The action covers a compressed period, keeping the focus tight while allowing for contextual incorporation of many of Jesus' teachings and parables. We're introduced to Judas as he first begins to question why he's following Jesus; to Mary Magdalene when Jesus saves her from stoning; to Simon Zealotes and the Pharisees when each challenges Jesus; and to Peter and the other apostles at the last supper, with each introduction complementing the accompanying lesson. Even Pontius Pilate is first introduced when he wakes from a puzzling dream about Jesus.
Though the show is about Jesus, the story is a twisted and intense triangle, as personified in the battle for Jesus approval and attention between Judas and Mary Magdalene. The plot structure is a constant tug of war with Jesus the serving as the rope, and the struggle to please everyone takes a noticeable and physical toll on him. Ryness, Maroulis, and Renée squeeze every ounce of passion, belief, and drama from the conflict, the sub-context reading as clearly as the biblical storyline. Their voices are clear and well intoned, and director Gordon Greenberg keeps the action and actors moving with equal purpose. You may have seen Jesus Christ Superstar before but it's rarely been played with such commitment to character and motivation.
Under the direction of Colin Welford, the orchestra starts the show with a ringing call to prayer that seamlessly transitions to the tense rock score. Maroulis quickly jumps in with the opening song "Heaven on Their Minds" which deftly incorporates the athletic modern choreography of Jon Rua. This sense of synchronicity continues throughout the show, directing focus. Even the ballads, though quiet and often poignant, are delivered with a sense of urgency, as if everyone on stage can feel the tension building with each step that Jesus takes.
Maroulis has a fabulous rock baritone voice with Broadway finesse, a trait also apparent in Ryness' Jesus, while Renée is perfection from the first note of "Everything's All Right" on. Her gentle, heartfelt "I Don't Know how to Love Him" is at once intimately small and close, but emotionally expansive, and the audience zeros in on the corner of the stage in almost reverent silence. Other musical highlights include the guitar intro and accompanying howl of Maroulis on "Damned for All Time," and Ryness takes on "The Temple" and "Gethsemane."
The Vegas-styled "King Herod's Song," featuring Christopher Sieber, and "Hosanna," "The Last Supper," and the titular "Superstar" are highlights from the ensemble. Nicholas Ward, Mykal Kilgore, Andrew Chappelle, and Ben Davis stand out among the supporting roles, and dance captain Brianna Mercado leads an impressively precise core. Frankly, every song is memorable and exceptionally performed keeping the energy and audience response high.
The scenic design, by Paul Tate dePoo III and costumes by Tristan Raines artfully blend periods to support the visual and thematic approach. Jesus and his followers are in more traditional garb, while the Romans and Pharisees wear drab uniforms, some with red insignia embossed armbands. The landscape combines ancient stone structures with barbed wire and scaffolding as well as a massive video wall that shows just how closely Jesus is being watched. The lighting design by Nathan W. Scheuer, sound design by John Shivers and David Partridge, and aforementioned video design by Greg Emetaz complete the spectacular storytelling.
Having said that, I have a few minor quibbles with some of the choices made in this production. Jesus collapsing repeatedly into the arms of various followers, as if literally drained by the crowds' demands or other pressures, feels overdone. Perhaps at one key moment it may add dramatic punctuation, as is it weakens a strong, resolute, and aware Jesus, which seems unnecessary. Additionally, the suggestion of resurrection at the end of the show reads like an emotional device, diminishing the thematic intent of Jesus Christ Superstar. I so enjoy the production, the angle and storytelling, and the genuinely connected, exceptionally voiced, and fully engaged performances of Maroulis, Ryness, and Renée, I want the show to end with the same clear focus.
A majestic rock 'n' roll take on a familiar yet compelling story, Jesus Christ Superstar, running through June 19, 2017 at the MUNY in Forest Park, is arguably Rice and Webber's penultimate work. Strong direction from Greenberg and outstanding performances by Maroulis, Ryness, Renée, and the ensemble ensure the story resonates for audiences new and old.