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5 Things To Know Before You See Jesus Christ Superstar

A short review of the La Jolla Playhouse show that’s headed to Broadway in March 2012


Photo by David Hou

I first saw JC Superstar as a kid at Starlight in Balboa Park. I saw it many times after that, and the last time was on Broadway in 2000. It’s one of my all-time favorites—a rock opera that takes place in 33 A.D., the final year of Jesus’s life. Whether you’re an Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice fan or a JC Superstar virgin, here are a few notes on the Des McAnuff-directed version, which opened last night at La Jolla Playhouse.

1a. The singing voices were incredible—rich, warm, and superstrong. In fact, I would rank all of the leads’ voices in the top 10 percent that I have ever heard in live theater...and I've seen about 75-100 Broadway shows in NYC in the last decade. (Still, I have to wonder if the performers were cast solely for their voices at the expense of the acting—some actors seemed a little wooden.)

1b. The pop opera is the new rock opera. It seems that the rock opera of the 1970s has evolved. This time around, Mary Magdalene’s voice was more Kelly Clarkson than, say, Courtney Love. Call me crazy—I love both singers equally—but I kind of miss the scratchy, growly, raw, sliding, emotional sound from the old days. This show was more opera than rock and more pop than rock.

2. Subtitles will help you. They had this cool scrolling digital thing that would prompt you with time and place, e.g. “Mount Zion: Thursday: Passover.” Still, one audience member was overheard saying, “I wish I knew the story better.”

Photo by David Hou

3. If you like traditional musicals…this one is not. "Bad" guys wore dreadlocks and leather jackets, while "good" characters were dressed in raggedy, Ann Demeulemeester-type tunics circa Spring 2009. Still, they managed to look timeless somehow—Biblical, yet modern—even futuristic!

4. It was appropriate for most ages. In the Temple of Jerusalem scene, there were a few men gyrating in boxer-briefs and some women shimmying in sequined dresses, but it seemed pretty innocuous. You make the call.

5. It was loud. In an awesome way. I liked the volume. If you’re sensitive, bring earplugs. It’s not painful, though.

Overall, holy crap, I loved it. The show shifts nicely from dark to upbeat, always contrasting good and evil. There’s never a slow, draggy part because just as things get serious, the next song is uptempo. At the end, a ramp is thrust out over the seats, and Jesus stands, cantilevered over the audience. It was so rad. Paul Nolan, who plays Jesus, did really well in the scene on the cross—you could really believe his pain and his thirst.

WOW. Go see it. Now playing at the Mandell Weiss Theater through December 31.

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