Review: Bristol Riverside Theatre’s reinvented ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ ‘brilliant,’ ‘utterly astounding’
Conceived in 1970 as a cosmic concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, then staged as a mesmerizing mishmash of a musical by director Tom O’Horgan in its Broadway premiere the following year, “Jesus Christ Superstar” has been reborn through the decades since by theaters worldwide, often offered as a holiday treat.
Now, the greatest story ever told gets a great retelling at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, whose production of “JCS” is new testament to the power and passion of its source material.
This first Broadway rock ’n’ religion musical rolls through the final week of Jesus’ life as apostles and antagonists respectively accept and ultimately reject this crowned King of the Jews as a joke in rabbi’s dressing, a crown of thorns replacing the halo of holiness he had been wearing as the Son of God. Reverence cedes to revulsion as his detractors decide on deicide to teach the Teacher the ultimate lesson of sacrifice.
Amusingly anchored by anachronisms — the apostles singing of their support, “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle. Knew that I would make it if I tried” — “JCS” sports a sensational score, with Webber and Rice writing the show’s irreverent numbers, including the title song. As this tale of Jesus’ last days is told through the jaundiced experience of Judas, it is obvious that God’s in his heaven, but all’s not right with the world.
What is right — and amazingly so — is this utterly astounding reinterpretation of the Broadway gospel according to O’Horgan and subsequent directors who have walked in the shoes of the tried-and-true to deliver their musical sermon.
Not so here. Director Keith Baker’s brilliant revisionist history fuses this blast from the past with contemporary verve, turning “JCS” into a mod man’s vision, using contemporary dress and modern means of communication to send the story’s timeless message out.
And the messengers themselves are artists clad in sneakers rather than sandals, robes jettisoned for jeans, with all the actors looking as if they have just fallen out of a Banana Republic catalogue. Baker’s highly stylized direction is a perfect match with the dynamic set of Roman Tatarowicz and the suggestive lighting of Joe Doran.
The work of a talented cast is a revelation, including robust performances by Patrick H. Dunn in the title role and Adam Kemmerer as Judas, the figurative broker in the metals market who disappointingly discovers that 30 pieces of silver doesn’t carry the weight it once did.
The two turn in richly astute and knowing performances with God in the details of their carefully, perfectly crafted creations.
Ciji Prosser certainly knows how to get the most of Mary Magdalene’s misguided and conflicted feelings for Jesus. Prosser reaches for the good within us all with a wrenchingly romantic plea for self-understanding that is as heartbreaking as it is healing in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
Meanwhile, the delicious Danny Rutigliano’s regal King Herod is all Vegas viper, a gold lamé-suited lounge singer who won’t be thrown for a loss when forced to make a decision on Jesus’ fate, fobbing it off on PowerPoint potentate Pontius Pilate (a terrific Darren Ritchie), suave and sadistic, practicing his putter as Jesus is used as target practice by Pilate’s frenzied henchmen.
This “JCS” is all such an imaginative venture that its mix and use of modern icons, such as selfies and iPhones, to tell a tale as old as time warrants, in keeping with this production’s sure-footed overturning of the sands of time, this ultimate praise:
BRT’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”?
Michael Elkin is an award-winning arts writer and playwright and author of the novel, “I, 95.”