NEW YORK — While walking out of the Neil Simon Theatre, one might be forgiven for wondering: Who knew the greatest story ever told needed this much help?
Des McAnuff's hyped-up vision of "Jesus Christ Superstar" opened Thursday with a showbiz bang — pimping the story of Christ with riffs from mega-movie franchises like "The Matrix" and "The Mummy" and daring to wow by cramming in as many eye-popping visuals as a summer blockbuster.
The cast scampers up and down steel ladders like pirates, the priests wear full-length leather dusters, and the Roman soldiers look like bikers hopped up on meth while spinning metal poles. An unfortunate campy scene with King Herod — complete with a gaudy giant "H'' that will remind you of the History Channel logo — seems lifted from another musical altogether.
An electronic ticker sets the location — "Mount Zion. Thursday. Passover" — although the production weirdly also uses surtitles. Both are unnecessary. And projections, while well done by Sean Nieuwenhuis, simply add nothing until, in one of the final scenes, he floods the back wall with Bible passages. The costumes lean on cowl and tunics and long pieces of fabric, seemingly lifted from the desert scenes in "Star Wars," and there are frequently lines of dancers busting out hip-hop moves.
Basically, Jesus and Co. sometimes look like they're in a Billy Idol video, circa 1989.
The thinking must have been that such an overly muscular staging was necessary to resurrect a moldy old set of songs from the 1970s. But such lack of confidence is the ultimate betrayal of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, whose pulsating, guitar- and organ-driven score — led by standouts "I Don't Know How To Love Him," ''Everything's Alright" and "Superstar" — is still super and now given hypnotic life by musical director Rick Fox.
In fact, all the bells and whistles on stage grow increasingly cloying and wearying. What's with all the buzz? Quit it already. We get it: The eye candy — the razzle-dazzle — is meant to connect the Jesus story with a pop popularity contest like "American Idol," but it tries too hard.
"I've been living to see you. Dying to see you, but it shouldn't be like this," sings a lovely Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene with lyrics that might as well refer to this production. "Could we start again?"
McAnuff pushes the paranoid, a not bad decision, seeing as how the story ends. The actors are all prone to darting, fearful glances and have a look of being hunted. That mood is heightened by lighting designer Howell Binkley, who uses subdued grays and dark tones — the exceptions being the white-hot spotlights when God is present.
This is no hippy-dippy look at the last days of Jesus' life — this is one where the guy in robes with long blond hair (an all-around excellent Paul Nolan) is being hunted, the priests conspire in rumbling voices while dressed like bad versions of Morpheus, and there's a potential Judas everywhere.
Unfortunately, in one recent preview, the original Judas was actually missing: Josh Young, who originated the part, was felled by illness and the part was ably filled by Jeremy Kushnier. Young was to be in the lineup once again Thursday night.
There are some brilliantly staged moments — the beggars descending on Jesus in the song "The Temple/Make Us Well," the death of Judas and the final crucifixion of Christ. All are big and brassy. But then again, just a few blocks away, "Godspell" has the same crucifixion, just as moving but without the bombast.
There are moments in this "Jesus Christ Superstar" when it feels like a snuff show, one that gets off on torture. We didn't need to sit through all 39 lashes that strike the messiah, even if the accumulation of digital red blood looked cool. In McAnuff's world, subtle apparently is for sissies.
Nolan's Jesus starts quietly, often just staring out through his long hair like a baked Jedi, but finds an edge as the show builds, showing irritation and flashes of anger. The production highlights a power triangle — not a sexual one — between Jesus, Mary and Judas that hinges on which tactics the sect need to use and the ambition of its mercurial leader.
Judas' torment at his own betrayal — fated and yet also chosen — is so good it's visceral. Marcus Nance as Caiaphas brings a regality to the role and a voice so low it seems to scrape the floor. And Kennedy as Mary is bright and intense, although she seems to love her messenger bag as much as Jesus.
Other touches are irritating — Tom Hewitt is really good as a conflicted and yet smarmy Pontius Pilate, but is asked to walk around the stage in a velvet suit as if he were in a Vegas lounge act. Bruce Dow seems to channel Nathan Lane as Herod in a sequence that tries to trigger laughs at a time when laughs are hard to find.
The speed of the show — it clocks in at just 2 hours even with an intermission — means some transitions don't go smoothly in terms of tone. And the set — Robert Brill has chosen to place the action in some sort of poorly lit steel warehouse — relies on rolling bleachers, for reasons that are never clear.
This "Superstar" began life at The Stratford Shakespeare Festival and then had a final tuneup at the La Jolla Playhouse. McAnuff deserves credit for trying to make the story relevant — a ticker at the beginning even counts back the years from 2012 to A.D. 33 for those unfamiliar with history — but with its defiant fringe kids, boxy set, blinding lights and sneering cynicism, he ends up making it feel more like "Rent."
One of the best moments is among the last: Jesus preaching from what looks like a treadmill pushed out over the first few rows. He can't be heard over the razzle-dazzle behind him — a nice slap at those who dare to ignore Jesus' substance, but also an indictment of this production.