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Jesus Christ Superstar – Theatre Review

Jesus Christ Superstar National Tour poster art

National Tour
Seen in Atlanta, Georgia, March 8, 2008

Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Dallett Norris
Starring: Ted Neeley, Corey Glover, Tiffini Dodson, Darrel R. Whitney, Craig Sculli

So, Jesus Christ Superstar. The dated yet still catchy rock opera which possesses two great singing roles: Jesus and Judas. The show itself has a warm spot in my heart because my parents owned a vinyl record containing “highlights” from the version that starred Ben Vereen as Judas. And damn, that man could wail on some Judas.

Fast forward to now, when in 2006 it was announced that Ted Neeley, the Jesus from the film version of the musical, was to be going on a national tour. The house looked to be pretty sold out, and it’s probably a safe bet that Neeley was a huge draw for the crowd.

[ad#longpost]However, I was there because with that announcement came the word that Neeley would be joined by Corey Glover, lead singer of Living Colour, one of my favorite bands from the 90s (and still one of my favorites—Collide0scope was a damn fine album, no doubt) in the role of Judas. As we reported at the time, we were a mite bit pleased.

The show musically is pretty much straight up the score you’re used to, with one odd exception we’ll talk about in a bit. The Overture gives one pause as it’s a slo-mo fight scene choreographed by somebody who doesn’t seem to know how to do fight scenes and honestly a bit confusing. Even if you know going in that the story features a people oppressed by other people with pointy, sharp things, you will understand that less after the Overture finishes.

But that’s okay, because Corey opens the show with a straight bang with “Heaven on Their Minds.” What you realize rather quickly is that Corey is changing up the song. You know how when you listen to a soundtrack of a musical, then you finally see a production of it, touring or otherwise, and basically the singers are conforming to whoever laid down the first “best known” version, whether that person was Michael Crawford or Len Cariou or whoever. Not so here. The singers, starting with Corey, have been given license to give a different interp of word and tone placement. The good news is that when Corey does it, he is working the song. It’s different but it’s not so different that purists will be offended, because he’s so damn good at it. For example, Vereen’s take on “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is to take it up into the rafters and howl it out a bit. Corey takes it in, makes it painful to say, goes the complete opposite direction (thank you, body mics).

Corey’s vocal performance is pretty much wall to wall quality. His physical presence on stage reveals something that I think is lacking with this production, however: direction. Corey, although having been a lead singer on stage in bands for forever, doesn’t have a lot of theatre experience. So he doesn’t know that he upstages himself a great deal. Any director worth his or her salt will yell out “Cheat out!” when presented with someone like this. And it’s not Corey’s fault, because like I said, he doesn’t know any better. I realize, again, with the glory of body mics, you can face upstage a lot more than you used to be able to get away with, but still—we need to see your face a bit. Also, Corey spends a lot of time at the beginning of the show hunched over—I think this must have been some kind of odd direction, since he seems to be fine for “Superstar.” No telling. Regardless, Corey gives an incredible vocal blowout performance and if anybody has a board bootleg, please contact me.

Now, let’s get back to Mr. Neeley. Let me state one thing up front: Mr. Neeley gets respect. The man is sixty-five and he’s performing some serious power-wails as Jesus. When he comes in to kick the asses of the moneychangers in the temple, you believe him. He conducts himself through “Gethesemane” considerably well, all things considered—because that’s a hard damn song. I know, I’ve sung it before, though not in a full-on Superstar production. But regardless, it’s hard. So even though I’m about to say some critical things, I’ve got nothing but respect for the man? Okay? Cool.

Mr. Neeley is only powerful on stage when he is power-wailing. When he’s just singing normally, his voice has little to no strength to it. And the problem, as we’ve stated, is that Judas and Jesus are vocal equals in the show. But here they’re not. Neeley might carry himself as Jesus when talking to Judas, but it’s pretty obvious that Neeley is past his vocal prime. Simon, played by Matthew G. Myers, is a bit of a vocal powerhouse himself (oh, he’s a Judas understudy—good pick) and Peter, played by Nate Aylworth, is no slouch himself (and he’s a Jesus understudy—also a good pick). But they both overpower Jesus. This will not do.

Okay, but that’s fine, I was willing to roll with it. But then there’s something else that anyone giving direction to this cast should have stopped. Any time Jesus is not directly interacting with someone else on stage, he’s making hand gestures in the air and talking to himself. We quickly figured out this must be him “talking to God.” This would be all well and good, but he literally does this all the time. He does this while other stuff is going on on stage. He does this seconds after finishing talking to someone else on stage. He does this while he is being sung to—the leper bit, which immediately follows the powerful temple sequence is an example. It’s wonderfully staged. It’s downright creepy, in fact, as it should be. But while all of this great work is coming from the chorus behind him, Jesus is busy “God-voguing.” That’s right, he does this so often, pulling focus from things around him, that we gave it a name. Because of this, Jesus goes from “Believable Savior” to “crazy homeless guy talking to himself,” or because this is 2008, after all, simply “owner of a Bluetooth headset.”

Also, Corey decided to change up his songs. But he’s working the songs over. When Mr. Neeley decides to do the same thing, it seems like he’s doing so because he can’t keep time with how the songs are supposed to go. Whether that’s the case or not, that’s just how it came across.

Some other notes: Tiffini Dodson makes for a fine Mary Magdalene. Michael “Darkseid was a wuss” Wright is an amazing Caiaphas. Scary as hell, in fact. His bio says that he’s played Sweeney Todd. I’d watch his Todd any day of the week.

Speaking of Caiaphas, this brings up a production problem that I’d like to address. The costumes looked like you got a completely color blind person to design Godspell. They’re just a mass of colorful nothing. Apart from Jesus—and it’s hard to screw up Jesus, everybody looks the same. The only reason we know Judas is Judas is because he’s played by Corey, who wails. There’s nothing unique about his costume. The only reason we know Mary is Mary is because she’s in a red dress. The priests were all in impressive black outfits, true, but Caiaphas has nothing to distinguish him from the others. From the mezzanine, we had to wait for him to start singing to figure out who was who.

Also, the high point of the choreography consisted of dancing with towels during “Hosanna,” the sort of thing my old church show choir wouldn’t have stooped to.

Now, this might sound, if you’re still reading, like I hated everything about this show up till this point. Not in the least. Like I said, Corey and most of the cast were all excellent. The chorus was strong, they just needed a real choreographer. Mr. Neeley was fine when he wasn’t distracting me from the rest of the stage. Simon, Peter, Caiaphas, all excellent when they kicked in. I was still with the show. I was still enjoying the good and trying to make note of the bad but not let it overpower me.

Then “Herod’s Song” made the show jump the shark.

No, that’s not being fair. To other things that have merely jumped the shark. “Herod’s Song” not only made this production jump the shark, it made the production jump the shark, then drag it on shore and beat it with brass knuckles and brickbats so badly that Greenpeace showed up and filed an injunction.

“Herod’s Song” is such a great song, not just because it’s funny and menacing all at once, but because it’s so easy to pull off. It’s like “Master of the House,” it’s practically effortless to do well, because the song itself does the work. All you have to do is sell the song, is, well, sing the song.

Herod manages to overpower the song by selling himself harder than he does the song. Which would be fine, if he was any good. But he’s neither funny nor menacing. In fact, why should we believe that this clown has any power to send Jesus anywhere? This guy’s such a putz that Jesus, who at this point in the show isn’t saying much, just letting the wheels turn, should be driven to say, “Okay, fun’s over. Bring the real Herod out here. Come on. Really.” When he can’t keep his chorus of dancing girls under control for their rhumba version of the song (or whatever the hell it was), why should we believe that this guy, who seems like a Lex Luthor-created Bizarro version of Nathan Lane, can command anybody? It’s not funny, it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the show, and brings whatever flow was happening to a complete and total halt while he does his deplorable schtick.

From there, the show simply can’t recover. “Judas’ Death” (please nobody scream spoilers at me, I mean, seriously) loses the power that Corey gives it with a staging problem at the end. And the oomph of “Superstar” gets lost in other staging issues with “The Crucifixion” (which I won’t go into here because if you are seeing the show, that would be a spoiler). And then a great stage effect, in fact almost the entire show, is negated by the sudden appearance of an iconic symbol that couldn’t be more out of place were it a Christmas tree inexplicably popping out of the stage at the close of A Christmas Carol. Just mind-blowing.

So, at the end of the day (and the show), what’s the verdict? We’ve got a bunch of people doing their absolute best and we’ve got a bunch of new performers on their first national tour, and they’re kicking a lot of ass. They’re led by Corey Glover, a strong, strong vocal presence, and buoyed by the star power of Ted Neeley, who’s saving his strength for when he really does need to soul-scream. However, all of this is hampered by staging issues, bad choreography, shoddy costuming and a lack of direction.

I would say go, because Corey’s performance is amazing, and the rest of the cast need some support as well, because some of them are going to have some great careers. Just be prepared, because the show as a whole has issues.

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  • That’s funny that you mentioned how “Herod’s Song” brought this show to a standstill. I saw JCS many years ago, during another national tour headlined by Neeley, and I felt the same way. And let’s face it, “Herod’s Song” is not a complex one musically. Like you said, you just have to sing it. The young man who played Herod had no concept of tonality, and barely “sang” any of the song, but rather treated it the way Eddie Izzard performed “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in “Across the Universe.” It was terrible, and like your show, it caused this one to grind to a halt. I also thought that Ted Neeley did not really do much until the second act with “Gethsemane.”

  • Danny: Thanks for the comment. However *shudder* Let us not consider the words “Izzard” and “Kite” in the same sentence ever again.