Get ready - this ain't your momma's Jesus Christ Superstar.
The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera always seemed to have a sort of '60's mystic to it -- "hippie music" as Jason Pebworth, the upcoming revival's Judas, puts it. But no longer. With an energetic young company, modern costuming and updated movement and direction from choreographer Anthony Van Laast and Australian director Gale Edwards, this Broadway Superstar is set to dismantle the love beads and peace sign aura on the thirty-year-old musical.
Certainly the show's March 8 press preview presentation give a taste of the modernization to come. The final number presented, "Hosanna," Simon Zealot's song and "Poor Jerusalem," begins with the triumphant entrance of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, where the crowd carries placards emblazoned with Christ's face and the slogan "Jesus rules." Caiaphas (Fredrick B. Owens of Smokey Joe's Cafe) sends his guards (who will be outfitted in the theatre with stylized riot gear) to harass the crowd, who discover their power to fight back in Simon's song, sung by Tony Vincent (Rent). Inspired, various chorus members strike boxing and martial arts poses, and one even gives the high priest the finger until the Zealots, characterized by Edwards as the disciples' leftist faction, begin handing out AK-47's, singing blissfully of possessing "the power and the glory/for ever and ever and ever."
Mary Magdalene (Rent's Maya Days), looks and sounds like the traditional Mary, singing "I Don't Know How To Love Him" to a sleeping Jesus, his head in her lap. But there is venom in her "he's just a man" that brings to mind a very modern woman, feminist and independent, despite being in love. She spits out "So calm so cool, no lover's fool/running every show" like she means it.
That's all a part of the production's desire to tell the story of Jesus Christ set firmly in an environment understandable, accessible and exciting to a generation born after the 60's had faded away. The set is a cross between a modern-ish steel bridge and classic marble columns. The costume drawings range in styles, including present-day Arabs, leather and bikini clad angels, a Pilate who recalls the uniforms of the Gestapo, a Judas who seems to have stepped from the pages of GQ and, naturally (!), a helping of bondage gear. The concept makes sense glancing over the company. After all, their median age is probably 23.
Really Useful Group managing director Kevin Wallace sees this youth and the vitality of Edwards' direction as necessary to bringing the story to another age group. "Great stories demand to be told. They demand to be told to each generation because in telling the story, that generation learns a little more about itself," he said.
In this staging, inspired by a production that began in Newcastle, England, and traveled all the way to London's West End, the new generation is challenged to not only examine religion, but also friendship and betrayal in the persons of Jesus and Judas. In "Heaven on Their Minds," the musical's opening number, Judas (Jason Pebworth) is already disillusioned with his friend and the course of their work. Jesus (Glenn Carter) descends onto the set's steel bridge in smoke and blue light, but Judas is not impressed. The good Jesus has begun has been crushed by all the talk of God and the crowds that now surround him looking for love.
This pressure is destroying their relationship, and Judas grows cynical and embittered, becoming not the hated character from Christian tradition, but someone very human. Pebworth thinks the audience connection with love and betrayal in their own lives brings them to understand Judas and, ultimately, attracts them to him.
"The trick to this show is for the audience to love Judas. Because Judas was not this person who joined the group of apostles at the end. He was one of the twelve chosen who traveled with Jesus for years doing the crazy rock tour that they were doing going from city to city. I don't think he would have hung around for three years thinking, 'Oh, I'm just going to betray this guy.' There had to be something that made him do what he did. Ultimately, he had no choice. I think that God had a plan for Jesus and, for that plan to work, somebody had to do the dirty work. It just happened that it wasn't just some guy, but one of Jesus' very best friends in the world. [Jesus and Judas] had an immense love for each other, intellectually. It was an intellectual type of love affair. They understood each other," Pebworth said.
Like much of this cast from Jesus on down, this is Pebworth's first Broadway show. The actor, who doesn't think much of himself as an actor and openly admits Edwards told him he was the least likely choice for his role, but was picked on an intangible something, is not entirely without credits. He spent some four years on the road as a swing and then as Raoul and a Phantom understudy on the touring Phantom of the Opera, a gig he landed on a whim audition in Texas. His attention has since wandered from musical theatre to rock and roll in the form of his Los Angeles based band, Halogen.
Progressing from "All I Ask Of You" to "Superstar" then was not so strange for a musician who comes from a songwriting -- and now singing -- background most heavily influenced by Queen. In fact, aside from singing the heck out of Judas, he wants most to bring old fashioned, hard-edged rock and roll back, in light of the recent wave of "boy-band shite."
Like Jesus, this Judas has a mission.
Another actor making his Broadway debut -- as the previously-mentioned, bird-flashing chorus member -- is Eric Millegan. After seven auditions spawned from an open call and months of waiting, he's snuggled into the ensemble, but, he insists, his story is not the most exciting. Instead, his castmate Hank Campbell, a Hoosier, walked into a cattle call casting audition of 600 people, sang his fifteen seconds and, one more audition later, had a part as a priest and a guard.
On the opposite end of the experience spectrum is Broadway vet and Tony Award nominee Paul Kandel (The Who's Tommy). Kandel sings one song in the production, but it's a showcase number, "King Herod's Song." Memorably played for campy laughs in the movie version, Kandel says his number will be something different.
"It won't be that. It will be big and hopefully entertaining, but it won't be that....Style wise, it's outside the realm of the story; it is part of the arch of the story. Integrating those things and making this number that was designed to be a little breath have that sense of giving a breath but also moves the story. That's what we're heading for," Kandel said.
Until the first preview March 23 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the Broadway audience will have to wait to see what becomes of this Jesus Christ Superstar. For now, the actors have utmost confidence in each other and their director, if their cheers between numbers are any indication. And their director, Edwards, has great faith in them.
She explained to the assembled press, "I didn't understand what it means to be an American actor. I didn't understand about that particular creature that brings such intelligence and energy and attack and courage to the work. I can say, hand on heart, that I have never been in a room with a better company than these 36 people who have sweated and worked and tried and failed and succeeded these past three and a half weeks here and will continue to do so even after Saturday when we move into the theatre."
Jesus Christ Superstar begins previews at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts March 23 with an opening set for Palm Sunday, April 16. Tickets are $81-$26. The Ford Center is located at 213 West 43rd Street. For tickets, call (212) 307-4100.
-- By Christine Ehren