Friday, April 6, 2012

On Broadway: Resurrecting ‘Superstar’ and ‘Evita’

Jesus Christ Superstar
Starring Paul Nolan, Josh Young, Chilina Kennedy, Tom Hewitt, Bruce Dow
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Des McAnuff; choreographed by Lisa Shriver
Previews began March 1, 2012; opened March 22; tickets on sale thru July 1
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY

Starring Ricky Martin, Elena Roger, Michael Cerveris
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Michael Grandage; choreographed by Rob Ashford
Previews began March 12, 2012; opened April 5; tickets on sale thru Dec. 30
Marriott Marquis Theatre, Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets, New York, NY

Now we have the return to Broadway of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s biggest hits together: 1970’s Jesus Christ Superstar and 1978’s Evita. If the new stagings aren’t genuine cause for celebration, they provide interesting comparisons between the works.

Kennedy, Young and Nolan in Jesus Christ Superstar (photo by Joan Marcus)
In its new incarnation--directly from the stage of Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where it originated last summer--Superstar has not aged well. Telling the story of the last days of Christ, from Palm Sunday to Good Friday (we do not see him risen until the curtain call) in a through-composed rock opera might have been a novelty 40 years ago, but Lloyd Webber’s blunt rock-influenced songs (with more than a touch of The Who’s Tommy) and Rice’s god-awful lyrics (the words have meaning and import only once: on the cross, Christ intones the Bible’s powerful “My God, why have you forsaken me?” and “It is finished“) can’t overcome their pretentions of greater glory.

Happily, Des McAnuff’s inventive staging--which is saddled with Robert Brill’s bland unit set that resembles the all-purpose jungle gym currently in vogue--and fast pace keep things moving, so in no time at all we go from Christ smashing the temple to being flogged as Pilate washes his hands.

McAnuff’s cast, most of whom come from the Canadian staging, is solid but unspectacular: remote otherwise, Chilina Kennedy beautifully caresses the show’s prettiest tune, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” while Josh Young’s Judas registers strongly both in his vocals and his predestined villany. Paul Nolan is more a dignified Christ figure than a compelling flesh-and-blood man, and the Pontius Pilate of Tom Hewitt is well-sung but bland.

Roger and Martin in Evita (photo by Richard Termine)

If Superstar fizzles rather than sizzles, Evita--imported belatedly from its 2006 London revival, much too late to make people forget the laughable 1996 Madonna movie--shows that Lloyd Webber and Rice improved their craft in the intervening years.

Lloyd Webber’s music, more sonically sophisticated than in Superstar, has hints of minimalism in its score a la Adams or Glass. Of course, his lovely lament “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” has such a memorable melody that Lloyd Webber overuses it as a pseudo-Wagnerian leitmotif, weaving it in, out and around other tunes throughout the show. The problem with this approach is that when we finally hear the song proper in the second act, its emotional power has been diluted by so much hinting at it beforehand.

Still, the songs are not only better but more varied, while Rice’s lyrics--still often sophomoric--immeasurably improve upon their predecessors’. Rice even comes up with clever turns of the phrase during Evita’s dress-up number, “Rainbow High” and hubby Juan Peron’s sardonic “The Art of the Possible.”

Those mesmerized by Harold Prince’s original Broadway production--and its then-unknown stars, Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin--might abhor Michael Grandidge’s staging, but its fluidity and straightforwardness helps put Argentine history many audience members will be unfamiliar with in context. Rob Ashford’s dances--heavy on the tango, of course, but with an appropriately stomping martial beat as well--work serviceably, as do Christopher Oram’s sturdy sets and costumes. Neil Austin’s lighting and Mick Potter’s sound design bring added visual and aural flair.

There remains the question of whether Lloyd Webber and Rice glorify or excoriate the Perons. Evidence goes both ways, less from ambiguity than uncertainty; but in this staging, excoriation wins. Michael Cerveris--a solid Broadway veteran--makes Peron a zombified head of state with a magnificent singing voice, and Ricky Martin is a charismatic Che (our Everyman narrator), telling the story with an arched eyebrow while singing superbly and with flawless diction.

Our Evita is the diminutive Argentine actress Elena Roger, who dances beautifully and acts persuasively but sings with a tendency towards shrillness, noticeably in the upper register. She’s also made up to look mousey (at first), then ratty. If the intention is to make Eva Peron so unlikable that we loathe her immediately, then it succeeds. But such a complex anti-heroine needs more understanding and less condescension from her creators.

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