A very serious 'Jesus Christ Superstar'

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Satire and the Crucifixion have always been the uneasy partners in "Jesus Christ Superstar." They are impossibly incompatible, of course. And yet their friction has powered the show's audacity since 1970, when a couple of young British guys named Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (or their record producer) invited the press to a church to sit and listen to their newfangled concept album -- a pop opera. I was there.

In Broadway's latest revival, director Des McAnuff has tackled the irreverent/reverent challenge by ignoring the conflict altogether. The slick and loud high-tech production, acclaimed from Canada to Southern California, is serious, passionate and handsome in ways that seem to grow from McAnuff's recent years directing Shakespeare and opera.

If you like some fun in your "Superstar," however, the show that capped his final year as head of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival may feel pretty grandiose for much of the material. McAnuff, who famously also staged "The Who's Tommy" and "Jersey Boys," seems not to want to get the jokes here.

The show is, after all, not just another New Testament pageant. Composer Lloyd Webber and, especially, lyricist Rice wrote a prescient, even edgy and cannily preposterous commentary on the cult of personality, a cautionary tale about how celebrity can poison the most deeply felt social movement.

Jesus appears through light beams on the double-decker heavy-metal set, designed by Robert Brill with rolling bleachers and very tall ladders for Jesus' acrobatic followers to climb. A news ticker counts back from 2012 to Biblical time and counts off the last days.

The cast is full of strong wailers and howlers. Paul Nolan, as Jesus, has a big voice but not much charisma and, dare we say it, seems a bit of a mope. Jeremy Kushnier, ably replacing the ailing Josh Young as Judas at Tuesday's preview, deftly captures the character's fierce mixed emotions and strenuous, contrasting vocal styles.

Tom Hewitt is sardonic and rueful as a debonair Pontius Pilate, Bruce Dow nails the welcome camp as the vaudevillian Herod and Chilina Kennedy makes a credibly concerned asexual Mary Magdalene.

Paul Tazewell's costumes range from Matrix fascism for the soldiers, long leather coats and dreadknots for the high priests and earth-colored drapey jerseys for the believers. Jesus wears white and, not unexpectedly, is followed everywhere by light. In case we didn't get it, lines from the Bible flash across the back wall for that very big finale.


WHAT "Jesus Christ Superstar"

WHERE Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.

INFO $30-$137; 877-250-2929; superstar onbroadway.com

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