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Review: Searching for the Superstar in Ivo van Hove’s Jesus Christ

Review: Searching for the Superstar in Ivo van Hove’s Jesus Christ


On a darkish, featureless stage in Amsterdam, a soon-to-be-crucified Jesus Christ laments his predicament whereas sporting a shimmery tank-top and grey New Balance sneakers. His followers, gathered round him, appear like they’ve raided an Urban Outfitters retailer someday round 2012.

By stark distinction, his persecutors, led by King Herod and Pontius Pilate, put on extreme white, floor-length robes and black coats. In an earsplitting falsetto, Jesus reproaches his father, God, for having put him on this place. As properly he may.

This revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s kitschy 1971 musical about the previous few days of Jesus’s life, is directed by the Belgian auteur Ivo van Hove. It’s an odd match.

Van Hove has constructed his popularity on aesthetically hanging, typically psychologically intense re-imaginings of well-known works — together with canonical performs (“Hedda Gabler” and a riveting “A View from the Bridge”); golden-age Hollywood films (“All About Eve”); and up to date fiction (“Who Killed My Father” and “A Little Life”). And although his vary is huge, there has at all times been mental ambition in his alternative of subject material: a critical curiosity within the poetics of human tragedy.

So it’s exhausting to fathom what drew him to “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a musical whose notoriety has been largely premised on the incongruity between its somber subject material and its disarmingly peppy, down-with-the-kids lingo. At instances, the lyrics even have relatively pressured, knowingly foolish rhymes, resembling when Jesus implores God to “present me now that I might not be killed in useless? Show me just a bit of your omnipresent mind.” To transmute such willful inelegance into excessive artwork can be a miracle certainly.

The productions runs on the DeLaMar Theater by means of Feb. 18, with a solid that’s virtually solely Dutch, delivering songs in clean English. Magtel de Laat provides a powerful vocal efficiency because the prostitute Mary Magdalen, whose touchy-feely tenderness towards J.C. offended the sensibilities of Christian conservatives when the musical first appeared within the Seventies.

With his lengthy locks, wide-neck T-shirt and grey denims, Lucas Hamming’s Judas Iscariot, who narrates the story, has one thing of the beleaguered British comic Russell Brand about him. It’s a robust search for the half.

In the title position, the Surinamese singer Jeangu Macrooy has an ethereal, deer-in-the-headlights vulnerability that could be a little exhausting to sq. with the messiah’s much-vaunted charisma: His Jesus comes throughout extra just like the fey frontman of a mid-ranking indie band than a rabble-rousing revolutionary. When each Mary and Judas muse aloud on the key of his magnetism in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (“I don’t see why he strikes me / He’s a person, he’s only a man!”), it feels all too actual.

In equity, nonetheless, the weak spot right here is the fabric, not the performers. Aside from one pivotal second — the betrayal of Jesus by Judas — there are few twists and turns. It’s principally exposition and wallowing. The present’s easy plot trajectory is neatly summed up in a dismal couplet within the lament “Gethsemane,” during which Jesus lastly resigns himself to his destiny: “Then, I used to be impressed / Now I’m unhappy and drained.”

The music (organized by Ad van Dijk) is a reliable transforming of Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s unique songs — a mix of basic rock riffs and poignant energy ballads — however there isn’t a lot selection. The timbre is both very up or very down, with solely the occasional curveball. A chipper, upbeat quantity performs throughout a scene during which Jesus is violently suffering from his captors, and even briefly waterboarded. It’s darkly edgy, harking back to Quentin Tarantino’s ’90s heyday.

The sung-through format, along with van Hove’s constancy to Rice’s lyric sheet, have a fatally constraining impact. Short of rewriting the factor, the director should rely virtually solely on audiovisual results — the austere set and sometimes spectacular lighting results are by Jan Versweyveld — as a way to flip it into one thing apart from bubble gum theater. Unsurprisingly, van Hove solely half succeeds.

During one scene, during which a guilt-ridden Judas suffers paroxysms of regret, the lights blink on and off at jarringly sporadic intervals to intensify our sense of his psychological turmoil. But different gildings merely nod to an thought of avant-garde experimentalism with out really enhancing the expertise: When the solid palms out wine bottles and glasses to viewers members in the course of the Last Supper, it’s not immersive, it’s simply awkward.

The manufacturing’s strengths and weaknesses are succinctly represented in its closing scene. “Jesus Christ Superstar” ends with a bloody Jesus, arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose, propped up by his entourage and elevated below a shaft of deep orange mild that very steadily brightens — evocative of sunsets and sunrises, endings and beginnings — earlier than he’s drenched in a positive, mist-like rain distributed from a sprinkler system. It’s a surprising picture, superbly rendered.

Moments earlier, nonetheless, members of the supporting solid have been smearing blood over one another’s torsos in a heavy-handed metaphor for his or her ethical complicity in Jesus’s demise. It felt overwrought and trite, like a sophomore art-school challenge. Van Hove has a factor for bloody imagery: His Hedda Gabler was famously doused with tomato juice by the lascivious Judge Brack; “A View from the Bridge” ends with its solid being symbolically drenched in blood. It labored properly then, however the trick has worn skinny.

People flocked to see “Jesus Christ Superstar” within the ’70s and ’80s, and, writing in The Times in 1993, Frank Rich suggested that such rock operas have been musical theater’s clumsy try to win again the viewers base it had misplaced to rock ‘n’ roll.

Today, guitar music itself is arguably as a lot a fixture of the nostalgia circuit as vaudeville, and so to revive a rock opera in 2023 is to heap kitsch upon kitsch. The solely solution to make it work — for those who should insist on doing it — would appear to by ramping up the humor and enthusiasm. Van Hove, for all his qualities, will not be famend for both.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Through Feb. 18 on the DeLaMar Theater, in Amsterdam; delamar.nl

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