Deafening ‘Jesus’ Mellows; Death Delivers ‘Meal’

The company of ``Jesus Christ Superstar.'' The play is directed by Des McAnuff. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/ Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

“Jesus Christ Superstar” begins not with a soothing hymn but with the screaming wail of an electric guitar advertising the Gospel according to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

A news zipper bisecting a severe, monochrome setting spells out our initial travel from the present back to Judea, 33 A.D., where butch Roman soldiers spear acrobatic Jews flipping like salmon against the current of the times.

Image is everything in this version of the Passion, which was insouciant in 1971 but seems a little moldy in director Des McAnuff’s taut revival, ear-splitting as ever.

“You’ve begun to matter more than the things you say,” the lethally disappointed Judas tells Jesus as the chips begin falling into place for the final act of betrayal.

“A trick or two with lepers and the whole town’s on its feet!” say the nonplussed Romans.

McAnuff, who has written several of his own rock musicals, has an unerring instinct for the pop dramatic moment, pumped up with volume and blinding with lights. (The metal slatted walls of Robert Brill’s skeletal set look puny compared with his strikingly similar “Faust” at the Metropolitan Opera, also staged by McAnuff.)

Total Buzzkill

When this show opened last summer at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival (where McAnuff is the outgoing artistic director), his cynical take on an already cynical show struck me as chillingly effective. Paul Nolan’s Jesus was vacant-eyed and automaton-like, not at all the warm and fuzzy Jesus of “Godspell.”

When Jesus is sensually anointed by Mary Magdalene, the encircling Disciples get similar treatment, presumably from their own groupies. Rice and Lloyd Webber present Jesus and His followers like ‘60s male radicals -- grim and hellbent on revolution, their women’s place in the kitchen and bedroom.

Entering Jerusalem, the angered Jesus is total buzzkill when he finds the steps of the Temple converted into a stage for frugging, garishly clad gals trading cash for sacrificial fauna.

Still later, in the production’s sole stab at humor and color, we’re in blingy Herod’s campy crib, a den of soulless debauchery presided over by the hilariously delighted Bruce Dow.

Stark Contrast

He’s stark contrast with Tom Hewitt’s troubled Pilate, desperately looking for a way to placate the Jews clamoring for an execution he knows will turn a carpenter into a martyr for mankind. Rice and Lloyd Webber’s theology may have been wobbly, but their Vietnam-era sensibility was brilliant.

Nolan has mellowed some in the intervening months, and Chilina Kennedy’s Magdalene remains powerfully sung. Josh Young, who was ill during the critics’ performances, had a fine replacement in Jeremy Kushnier as the appalled Judas.

The heavy metal tone mellows in Act II, and the show grows more accessible, even if Lisa Shriver’s bump-and-grind choreography bears more resemblance to a suburban aerobics class circa 1980 than actual dance. “Jesus Christ Superstar” recaptures a moment more precisely than the weak-kneed revival of “Godspell” a few blocks away. It got under my skin.

At the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. Information: +1-877-250-2929; Rating: ***

‘Big Meal’

Dan LeFranc’s “The Big Meal,” on the smaller stage at Playwrights Horizons, shows plenty of talent even if the play sinks in its own gimmickry.

In less than 90 minutes, LeFranc gives us the good times/bad times history of a couple who meet in a restaurant, become a couple, uncouple, reconnect and ultimately preside over three generations of kin.

That Sam Gold stages LeFranc’s lightning transitions from moment to year to decade with assurance and only a modicum of confusion only advances this young director’s rising status.

The nine-member ensemble, led by stage veterans Anita Gillette and Tom Bloom, play toddlers, teens, grown-ups and elder folks with equal agility.

But the audience too quickly catches on to the gimmick (all I’ll say is, beware the waitress bearing meatballs), adding an unwanted element of jocularity to the otherwise sentimental proceedings.

Through April 22 at 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; Rating: *1/2

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)

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