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La Jolla Playhouse hosts classic ‘Superstar’

by David Dixon

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 courtesy of david hou

courtesy of david hou

There have been many theatrical events based on arguably the most famous man in history, Jesus Christ. Now, a rock opera about the messiah is playing at the La Jolla Playhouse.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is an artistic depiction of the final days in the life of Jesus (Paul Nolan). The play explores Jesus’ deteriorating relationship with his disciple, Judas Iscariot (Josh Young), and explains why this played a key factor in both of their deaths.

The appeal of “Superstar” is not solely religious. Music and lyrics from Broadway kings Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice make this possible.

Created years before either of these men became titans of theater, the music, for the most part, lacks the elegant Broadway melodies they would later become famous for. Instead the duo created a rock’n’roll soundtrack that will satisfy young adults, yet it’s also intelligent enough to attract older people. This was evident on opening night, when the playhouse audience was comprised of mostly older patrons who really seemed to enjoy every single number.

The music is so great, it is easy to take the rest of the show for granted. An aspect supposedly lacking in earlier versions of “Superstar” was an emotional connection to Jesus and Judas. In this staging, personal investment in Jesus and Judas is achieved because the two main performers sing and act the music with full involvement.

Nolan is excellent at portraying Jesus as an ever-knowing, yet flawed human being struggling to accept the fact his time on earth is coming to an end. Nolan expresses traits of humanity and saintliness very effectively, and his final scenes are chilling.

Young is also a standout as Judas, a complicated person whose name, along with Benedict Arnold, has been used as a popular insult through the test of time. Young brilliantly shows the disturbing state Judas is in. He never plays his character as an evil betrayer, but as a person who wrongly believed he was helping mankind by ruining his best friend’s life.

Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff strips away a good amount of the extravagance that has been associated with past versions of “Superstar.” There are still a few campy moments, so the action does not get too serious, but McAnuff wanted what happened on stage to be in the style of a classic tragedy.

It is refreshing to see a talented director deliberately not try to top himself and instead accomplish something riskier. While the original album that inspired the show is considered to be groundbreaking, many say there has never been a defining production in Manhattan. It will be interesting to see how McAnuff’s “Superstar” does when it debuts in New York City next spring.

Unfortunately, there is a minor flaw with some of the music. A few brief interludes from the orchestra attempt to replicate the 1970s sound from the CD. This does not happen too often, but when it does, these moments can feel dated.

That being said, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is an enthralling portrayal of Jesus’ last week of life. Leave it to Webber and Rice to create a piece that after 40 years, still rocks.

Tickets and information about “Jesus Christ Superstar” can be found at lajollaplayhouse.com.

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