Hearing the music of Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time, in 1970, was thrilling. The concept album featured Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, an incomparable hard-rock singer who also gave throaty passion to ballads, as JC, and the theatrical-voiced British actor-singer Murray Head as Judas. Subsequently seeing Jesus Christ Superstar on stage, then on the screen (it was a 1973 film) was a disappointment, even if the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice score remained a dynamic one.
To revisit Jesus Christ Superstar now, 40 years later at La Jolla Playhouse, is to be reminded of the ferocity, cleverness and occasional beauty of its music. Yet it’s still not wholly satisfying theater, even in the inventive hands of Des McAnuff, director of this Stratford Shakespeare Festival production that is already bound for Broadway. At La Jolla, McAnuff previously breathed new life into The Who’s Tommy, the original album of which was released a year before the Jesus Christ Superstar record. The Playhouse’s former artistic director presides over this new JCS’s technical dazzlements (notably an electronic-ticker backdrop that evokes a Times Square-like Judea), athletic choreography (by Lisa Shriver) and a subtle departure in plot from traditional productions of the show that suggests Jesus (Paul Nolan) and Judas (Josh Young) each have a weakness for Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy).
The contemporizing of the setting is accomplished without distraction, and nothing visually is as over the top as the devices in Norman Jewison’s ’73 film (remember the tanks?). Nolan, Young and Kennedy are each sincere and physically attractive, but none radiates exceptional charisma. Kennedy isn’t aided either by his solo turn on the title song, when he takes the stage as if clad for “American Idol.” Having the most fun is Bruce Dow, whose “Herod’s Song,” a ragtime hoot of considerable camp, is played to the hilt. Edna Turnblad should get so juicy a crowd-pleaser.
For all its early flash, this production mirrors the original album’s denouement in tone – one of reflection and understatement. It’s not quite prayerful, but close.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.