Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review of Ted Neely in Jesus Christ Superstar Touring Production

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

Jesus died on the cross at age 33, but that hasn’t stopped Ted Neeley from reprising the role of Christ at nearly twice that age in the touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar,a role he’s played intermittently for over 30 years now. In the current tour, Rick Belzer’s gloomy lighting and Bill Stabile’s metal-scaffolding set--a bridge spanning two balustrades--looks like a border checkpoint, offering a reason for revival in their poignant, ironic commentary on contemporary Israel, where Jews, once oppressed inside their own homeland by a foreign occupying force, have now become the "hated Romans" to the Palestinians in Gaza.

But unfortunately for the rest of the production, there’s nothing timely about a performer who can no longer sing the role he once made famous in the 1973 film version, especially not in director Dallett Norris’ horribly sung, terribly staged production.

For those unfamiliar with the story, JCS follows the last days of Christ (Neeley), from his triumphal Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, betrayal by Judas (James Delisco) in the Garden of Gethsemane, to his crucifixion and ascension into heaven. Entirely sung through, this rock-musical gives equal balance to the torments of Christ (being relied upon to simply heal the physical pain of those whose souls he would rather save), and the political concerns of Judas, who sees Christ as upsetting the fragile autonomy of the Jews under Roman rule by inspiring rebellion among his followers. In almost any production, Tim Rice’s lyrics and Webber’s music makes both stories absolutely compelling and vibrant to watch.

But not this production. Not only does guitarist Jake Langley ruin the opening lick, but Norris opens the overture by staging weird slow-motion fighting between Jewish rebels and Roman guards, set to an occasional strobe light and minimal fog that doesn’t make the faux-fighting any more interesting. Jesus and his followers arrive, Judas bursts in, and from his first song to his last, Delisco articulates his lyrics in as weird and obnoxiously arrogant a voice possible. There are aesthetic limits to wanting to make a role your own, and when Judas worries about being damned for all time, Delisco should have worried more about musical hell.

The remainder of the cast and production splits down the middle. Matthew G. Myers (as Simon) impresses, but only gets one exciting song, Peter (Adam Campbell) sounds equally solid, but he only shares half of a number, with Mary Magdalene (Cristina Sass). When she enters, she looks scrumptious in her flowing red dress, but her pleasant, too pretty voice and attitude lacks sultriness. Those who read the Bible might know better than to judge her as a reformed whore, but her performance should still exude enough seductive passion to give Judas reason to doubt.

In his performance as Annas, Caleb Shaw’s striking voice comes in to grate on Judas or Christ at the right intensity, and while the ensemble sounds wonderful (musically, they’re the best part of the evening), I’ve never seen such an out-of-shape chorus in the (allegedly) professional touring company of a musical.

Overall, there’s just no rock feel to this rock opera, and I mostly blame Neeley. He has to lumber around like an aging grandfather and slow down nearly every song in which he’s required to sing so that what’s left of his voice can still handle the music. He can still nail the screaming, but he can’t sing above a D anymore without his voice either cracking or going immediately into falsetto, and while he shows that he still possesses the chops of his lower register on "The Temple" and "Gethsemane," by the time he get to these songs, I was already disappointed by his weak first half performance.

And when Christ sings about being dead soon, the disciples should worry more that he’ll keel over from complications of his advanced age. (Why didn’t they just ask John McCain to play the role? After all, he can’t sing either.) I won’t apologize. The touring company expected Philadelphians to shell out upwards of $100 a ticket. But good theatre should pay for good art, not Ted Neeley’s retirement.

Ultimately, I can’t blame Norris’ direction entirely. He achieved a nightmarish effect in the "healing scene" where the afflicted approach Jesus as a massive body covered by a sheet, with their black-covered heads poking out to demand "heal me." And in his one moment of brilliance, Norris has Mark Baratelli play Herod like a fey send-up of the Jewish King, fawned over and fawning, eliciting enough laughter to set up a great contrast with the crucifixion scene. Unfortunately, Norris and Neeley stretch this scene out too long and Neeley overacts these dying moments, coming in and out of life to give at least three opportunities for the audience to begin their applause for the musical’s end.

Or perhaps they were just eager to go while the going was still good, a lesson that Ted Neeley apparently has yet to learn.


Swimming Kangaroo said...

I just want to thank you for this review. We just came home from the Dallas production and I agree with everything you said about Neeley's performance. We shelled out a bunch for these tickets and it was VERY disappointing.

Leslie said...

We sent to the Phoenix Gammage show last month, and didn't even know who Neeley was, so were very disappointed in his performance. Once home, we looked him up, saw that he was famous, but I believe it's time for him to stop.

Anonymous said...

I am just sorry I hadn't read this review before going to see it in Boston on May 9. I agree with your comments on Ted Neely and the set although I found the scene after the death of Christ when Neely rose into the roof very apt.