Staged by former Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff, the production opened at Stratford in May and in November, completed a critically acclaimed — literally sold out — extended engagement.
The La Jolla Playhouse run, with the Stratford company almost intact, continues through Dec. 31 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre. If you have not booked tickets yet, do so now.
Even before the production’s rumored Broadway transfer was a reality, McAnuff, now Stratford Festival’s artistic director, and Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley planned to bring “Jesus Christ Superstar” to local audiences. The Broadway production opens in previews March 1 at New York’s Neil Simon Theatre.
As heard Nov. 3, McAnuff’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” is musically and vocally the most extraordinary of the decade, and that includes the Playhouse productions of “Jersey Boys” and “Memphis.” From the moment music director Rick Fox, who also plays organ and piano, raises his baton and the guitar produces the original orchestration’s indelible twang, it’s apparent we’re in good hands with Fox and his 11-piece orchestra, members of the American Federation of Musicians.
The most-awed kudos, however, belong to the vocal artists, headed by Paul Nolan as Jesus, Josh Young as Judas and Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene. Most aficionados, those who possessed the original concept album, saw the film and witnessed numerous tours, are used to hearing shredded voices. This is — above all — a rock opera, but the vocalism here is exemplary, not only in style but in the paced and intelligent vocal production that’s easy on the ear and intelligible.
Nolan, whose Christ is so aware of what’s coming that he moves in a kind of trance, is an extraordinary singer, whether effectively soaring to Lloyd Webber’s punishing top with ease or singing more intimately in sotto voce passages. Young’s Judas is amazing. He’s feverish dramatically, completely selling his character’s frustration with Jesus; he claims Jesus believes the hype that he is the son of God. Judas, who loves Jesus and may be jealous of his relationship with Mary Magdalene, wants to live. His kiss, his foretold betrayal and his dramatic suicide are devastating.
Kennedy’s Mary Magdalene is caught up in her love for both men. Kennedy, who also sings beautifully, is the calm amid the tumult, smoothly delivering the heart-melting “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and in the trio “Could We Start Again Please,” sung with Peter (Mike Nadajewski) and Judas.
In McAnuff’s concept, Jesus, Mary and Judas are close friends who totally love one another. However one construes that relationship, the effect makes the tragedy even more profound. The question is, was Jesus “just a man” or was he indeed divine?
Other standout performers are true-basso profundo Marcus Nance as Caiaphas, tenor Aaron Walpole as Annas, Bruce Dow as King Herod and Jeremy Kushnier as Pontius Pilate. Kushnier, who played Tommy DeVito in the Chicago, Las Vegas and Toronto companies of Jersey Boys and was seen here as Dr. Carver in the national tour of Normal, replaces the initially announced Brent Carver, who portrayed Pilate in Stratford.
The chorus is marvelous, vocally and dramatically, in Paul Tazewell’s everyman tatters. Other contributors to overall excellence are choreographer Lisa Shriver, set designer Robert Brill, lighting designer Howell Binkley, video designer Sean Nieuwenhuis, sound designer Jim Neil and associate choreographer Bradley “Shooz” Rapier. McAnuff’s staging is spare, as befits a piece originally created as a concept album. He commits a few forgivable dramatic excesses and like every production in this human’s experience, hasn’t found an effective ending image, but he is forgiven.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” continues at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; with added 2 p.m. matinees Dec. 20, 22, 28 and 30; through Dec. 31 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., www.lajollaplayhouse.org or (858) 550-1010.