Review - Jesus Christ Superstar & The Morini Strad
Back to the Article
by Michael Dale
In October of 1971, three days after the original Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar began its week and a half of previews, the title song of what is considered to be the world's first rock opera was heard on American television's highest-rated show. No, it wasn't The Ed Sullivan Show, which had ended its run earlier in the year, but the controversial new sitcom, All In The Family.
The set-up was that conservative Archie Bunker gets arrested while trying to save his son-in-law Mike at an anti-war rally that had turned violent and he's now sharing a jail cell with a group of hippies listening to Jesus Christ Superstar on their transistor radios.
"You mean you don't dig Jesus Christ Superstar?," asks a cellmate after a furious Archie demands that they turn the music off.
"I dug Jesus way back before you weirdoes turned Him into a superstar," he barks back.
"You condemn this music? This music has brought many young people to Christ."
"Listen here, buddy, Jesus wants you to come to Him on your knees, not wiggling and jiggling until your parts fall off!"
It was a quick exchange played for comedy, but it did address a real issue that was angering more and more as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's creation made its way from concept album to Broadway show. The mere use of rock music in telling the story of Jesus, no matter what the intention, was seen by many vocal religious leaders and their faithful as a disrespectful outrage. And those who looked past Webber's music, certainly the most hard-driving rock score of his career, were frequently unhappy with Rice's libretto, which treats the last days of Christ as an unstoppable climax to a political movement where a sympathetic Judas fears that his beloved friend has placed himself above the message he set out to convey.
Of course, it only takes a few decades for subversive art to be accepted as family friendly, and Jesus Christ Superstar, like rock music itself, is now widely accepted as suitable entertainment for the masses. Which is a bit of a shame, because the audacity of its very existence is what gave the show much of its original dramatic strength. Without the threat of being offensive, or at least revolutionary, the blurry storytelling of Rice's text - which seems to play under the presumption that the audience already knows the plot coming in - and the lack of variety in Webber's score (that second act vaudeville number is such a relief) rises to the forefront. And while the piece can give the customers a swell time just by playing up its potential for rock concert pageantry, a bit more character work is needed to make it do anything more than merely rock hard.
Des McAnuff, whose new mounting hits town after stints at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and La Jolla, is a director whose New York productions have generally succeeded more when stressing rock concert pageantry (Tommy, Jersey Boys) than with character work (How to Succeed..., Guys and Dolls). His knack for kinetic energy is in full force, but the material is frequently overwhelmed by flashy ideas (Jesus being thrust over the audience on a platform with the blazing lights of a cross shining like a Broadway marquee.) and the dazzle of Paul Tazewell's costumes, which range from Vegasy to fetishy.
It's a very well-sung production, though the individual actors achieve mixed results in elevating the evening beyond a loosely-plotted concert. Josh Young rises above, maintaining a high level of charisma while giving weight to Judas' conflicted soul. Paul Nolan seems to be underplaying Jesus a bit too much, saving his emotions for the realization of the inevitability of his fate. It's admirable that Chilina Kennedy's Mary Magdalene is not made to sing "I Don't Know How To Love Him" as "the hit song" but her aimless rendition carries no impact at all.
Those looking for a bit of harmless Broadway fun should enjoy themselves at this new revival, but Jesus Christ Superstar is really a lot more fun when it doesn't seem so harmless.
You might say Erica Morini's life began as a fantasy and ended as a mystery. As a young violinist she made her debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1916 at the age of twelve. During her sixty-year career as an acclaimed musician, she played a Stradivarius made in 1727. As she lay in her hospital bed, dying from heart disease at age 91, the exceedingly valuable instrument was stolen from her Fifth Avenue apartment, along with other items, in a crime that remains unsolved.
Playwright Willy Holtzman uses this storied instrument as the connection between his characters in The Morini Strad, a (mostly) two-character play that follows the familiar pattern of intergenerational two-character plays (the colorful and/or crusty older character with a wealth of stories and/or observations finds an excuse to share many of them with a less-interesting younger character), but nevertheless provides sufficient charms for a pleasant interlude.
Mary Beth Peil plays the sharp-tongued and prickly Morini at the point of her life when she's retired from the concert stage, no longer able to perform at the elite level she was known for, and finds little joy in being regulated to teaching lesser talents privately and in master classes.
She intends to sell her trusty Strad, valued at many millions, in order to support her lifestyle for whatever time is left, but a slight imperfection - the result of furious demonstration of proper technique for an uninspiring student - threatens to decrease the instrument's value, so she turns to Brian (Michael Laurence), a luthier whose expertise and discretion in repairing such imperfections is a well-kept secret in her inner circle.
There's not a great deal of initial warmth between the artisan whose job is to replicate a consistent perfection and the artist who uses the result of his work to consistently create a varying perfection. Erica made sacrifices in her life to achieve artistic success while Brian set aside his dreams of being a great craftsman of stringed instruments to support his wife and children with more immediate opportunities making repairs. But, as expected, their professional dependence on one another leads to mutual affection and understanding.
While the play offers little in the way of drama, director Casey Child's company lifts the evening into being a softly played chamber piece. Peil's balances Morini's acidic remarks with the loneliness the woman feels at having outlived both her contemporaries and, in her mind, her reason to be alive. Laurence's Brian is quietly eloquent and prideful for his underappreciated role in bringing great music into the world. Young violinist Hanah Stuart rounds out the cast as an image of the prodigy Erica, playing bits of pieces throughout the play; a reminder of the joy that once was.
"One reason we lasted so long is that we usually played two people who were very much in love. As we were realistic actors, we became those two people. So we had a divertissement; I had an affair with him, and he with me."
The grosses are out for the week ending 4/8/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: MARY POPPINS (17.9%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (14.5%), MAMMA MIA! (12.5%), MAGIC/BIRD (10.8%), War Horse (8.3%), SISTER ACT (7.3%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (5.6%), EVITA (3.9%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (3.7%), WICKED (3.2%), CHICAGO (3.1%), GHOST (2.4%), JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (2.1%), ROCK OF AGES (1.8%), ANYTHING GOES (0.9%), NEWSIES (0.4%),
Down for the week was: SEMINAR (-27.0%), VENUS IN FUR (-17.6%), PORGY AND BESS (-15.1%), END OF THE RAINBOW (-15.1%), Gore Vidal'S THE BEST MAN (-9.9%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (-9.5%), GODSPELL (-6.8%), DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER (-5.9%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-5.8%), CLYBOURNE PARK (-2.8%), MEMPHIS (-2.7%), JERSEY BOYS (-2.0%), ONCE (-1.7%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-0.9%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (-0.9%), DEATH OF A SALESMAN (-0.2%),