Paul Nolan (center) and company
in Jesus Christ Superstar
(© Joan Marcus)
Paul Nolan (center) and company
in Jesus Christ Superstar
(© Joan Marcus)
Andrew Lloyd Webber's propulsive rock musical score, complete with wailing guitar riffs, is well served in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's mostly effective and fast-paced production of Jesus Christ Superstar, now at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre, under the direction of Tony Award winner Des McAnuff.

Inspired by the Biblical story, the musical focuses on Jesus (Paul Nolan) in his final days on Earth, and in particular his relationships with former prostitute Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy), and his ultimate betrayer Judas Iscariot (played by Jeremy Kushnier at the performance I attended). While the religious overtones are inescapable, the show is at its core a very human tale of individuals caught up in events that are out of their control, but for which they must still accept responsibility.

It's an unconventional take on the oft-told narrative that still feels fresh. In particular, the Last Supper scene has an edge to it, as Tim Rice's lyrics indicate a bitterness that is not customarily represented in the way Jesus talks about the bread and wine as his body and blood.

The moment is especially striking in contrast to how serene Nolan's Jesus seems throughout most of the show. The actor has perfected a beatific expression, but he also suggests a roiling undercurrent of emotion that cascades out in brief explosions that utilize the performer's powerful falsetto. One of the highlights of the musical is Nolan's soulful interpretation of "Gethsemane" wherein Jesus angrily questions but ultimately accepts his destiny.

Kushnier -- who has been filling in for this production's original star Josh Young, who has been sidelined by illness -- does a remarkable job in capturing the complex and sometimes contradictory impulses that motivate Judas. His raw-sounding rock vocals are nicely showcased in the heart-wrenching "Damned for All Time," and his brief reprise of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," is incredibly moving.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Kennedy's full rendition of the song in the first act, and her depiction of Mary Magdalene in general. While her singing voice is pleasant enough, there's a chilliness to her performance that is off-putting.

Tom Hewitt lends a gravity to his role as Pontius Pilate that is subtly effective, while Bruce Dow goes for all-out camp in his brief appearance as Herod. Marcus Nance is a bit too stiff in his role as Caiaphas, and his bass vocals don't seem as well integrated into the overall sound of the production as they should be.

Robert Brill's industrial-looking set is surprisingly versatile, with Sean Nieuwenhuis' video design complementing but never overwhelming the scenic design. Also doing nice work is lighting designer Howell Binkley, who goes full-out on the scenes highlighting the pageantry of the crucifixion.

Paul Tazewell's costumes are more hit and miss. The designer does well enough with Jesus' immaculately white wardrobe, and the attire worn by the apostles. But he and McAnuff have opted to include a wide array of fetish-wear for members of the ensemble that pulls the audience right out of the scene -- particularly in the staging of "The Temple" and "Herod's Song."

Lisa Shriver's choreography has a kinetic and joyous feel to it that matches the funky beats of Lloyd Webber's music. Indeed, more than 40 years since its debut, Superstar still shines.