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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Neil Simon


  Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy/ Ph: Joan Marcus

For the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical, if not for its eponymous hero, it’s the fourth coming – to Broadway. This time, director Des McAnuff shepherds the 1970s retelling of the days leading up to the crucifixion – for a near-Easter opening. But this version of the greatest story ever told is, alas, not living up to its illustrious past.

When it was first performed, this rock musical created controversy not only because it set a sacred text to an often boisterous rock score, but because its true sympathies seemed to lie more with Judas (here played by Josh Young) than with Jesus (Paul Nolan), as the infamous disciple struggles with his conflicted conscience over whether it’s in the best interests of his people to betray his friend. After all, Judas reasons, Jesus is losing his grip, consorting with prostitutes (Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene) and generally believing that “this talk of God is true.” Or maybe Judas is just jealous. No one can say, least of all he himself. Jesus, however, is too preoccupied with his own intimations of mortality to pay much heed to Judas – except to prophesy the betrayal in a fit of bad temper, prompting Judas to accuse him of seeking his own destruction.

McAnuff adds contemporary touches – an electronic tickertape to announce set changes, moneylenders in the temple dressed as strippers – but the heart of this musical remains in the tribal culture of the 70s. Thus, despite both the modern bombast and some muddy staging, the show’s emphasis stays squarely, if unimaginatively, on the group dynamics that propel the tragedy: the multiple motives of the Jewish priests (who fear the Romans will punish any talk of a new Jewish king); the extremists, who want to drive the Romans out; a decadent King Herod (Bruce Dow), who only wants to be entertained; and a bemused Pontius Pilate (Tom Hewitt), who just wants a good enough reason to do something – anything.

There is some pageantry in this production – most notably in Herod’s rousing show-stopper “Herod’s Song,” which incorporates showgirls and a dazzling staircase up into the sky – but despite the decibels and the deadly earnestness, and the best efforts of a cast full of fine voices, the production is strangely lackluster and low energy. While there are strong moments – Hewitt’s compelling portrayal of the tortured Pilate, for instance – the complicated equations Webber and Rice are trying to draw never add up to much.

Much of that is the fault of the musical itself, which never entirely works out the relationship between the historical determinism and the divine predestination that compel the principals toward an ending they’d all rather avoid. Even as Judas complains that he’s being set up in a preordained part in this New Testament drama, so do Pilate and even Jesus himself; all of them feel like pawns in God’s redemptive play. But the fact that they’re all facing the same doubts makes Jesus’ selection seem all the more arbitrary – an accident of birth – an effect that’s exacerbated by Nolan’s less-than-charismatic performance and the often sophomoric lyrics the show gives the savior (“God, thy will is hard/But you hold every card.”) A Jesus who can’t be more articulate than that about his ultimate sacrifice for the salvation of mankind comes off as whiney rather than wise. 


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