Jesus is a Broadway star these days, and theater-goers are the ones benefiting from the chance to see two really fabulous shows that are wildly different and both wildly entertaining.
Just starting previews is Jesus Christ Superstar as imagined by Des McAnuff. Rare are the motionless moments in this production, and that makes those that do happen all the more effective. The constant movement by the actors and sets: across the stage, up and down ladders, along catwalks, in and out of openings, actors moving set pieces, set pieces moving actors, actors moving actors, words moving in scrolling text across screens, all reinforce the chaos that marked those last few days of Christ's life on earth.
The cast is uniformly wonderful. Jesus (Paul Nolan) and Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy) are lovely singers and have a great chemistry. But the stand out is Josh Young, who portrays Judas Iscariot. His voice is truly a gift; amazingly rich and emotional. Almost as important, I was struck by how his emotional intensity as an actor was palpable throughout the show, whether up on a catwalk merely observing (I could see tears glistening from down in the orchestra), or performing a heartbreaking, fill-the-stage "Damned for All Time."
The supporting cast is also extremely strong and sound great together, which is critical with this score; in particular, the menacing High Priests Caiaphas (Marcus Nance) and Annas (Aaron Walpole), and Pontius Pilate (Tom Hewitt). And I can't fail to mention the one bit of comic relief (that does turn dark in the end) in the person of King Herod, played brilliantly by Bruce Dow as a decadent, fey, swishing "queen" in a taunting, Vegas-style production number performed in front of a beaten, kneeling Christ.
Be forewarned, if you don't already know, this show is entirely sung; which means that if you don't like the score or you don't generally like musicals, you might have trouble. It is a true "rock opera."
Also, remember that the core theme in Superstar is the questioning of the divinity of Jesus Christ. I think that, even if the very idea of doubt as to that question offends you, the show is worth seeing; just be prepared: Jesus Christ Superstar is a spectacle about the last days of Jesus on earth with a very human and raw perspective.
Godspell, on the other hand, running since previews began in October '11, is a small, wonderfully funny, inventively staged, treasure of a show based on a fairly straightforward telling of the Gospel of Matthew: think parables like the Prodigal Sun; played to great hilarity and with great heart. The young, incredibly talented Godspell cast makes magic together. Hunter Parrish, as Jesus, is luminous (as one of my friends described his performance), and strikes the perfect pitch as a gentle, loving, and effortlessly charismatic teacher, friend, activist... But this is a true ensemble show; each actor has a remarkable voice and massive amounts of comedic skill and their own individual charisma. So major shout outs to Lindsay Mendez, Telly Leung, Nick Blaemire, Anna Maria Perez De Tagle, Celisse Henderson, Uzo Adubo, George Salazar, Wallace Smith, Morgan James and the fabulous understudies, Julia Mattison, Eric M. Krop, Corey Mach, Hannah Elles. Godspell is performed in a small, magical, in-the-round theater called Circle in the Square, on a stage that transforms throughout the show to reveal hidden surprises. It's a delight all the way around.
In the end, one of these shows does not stand in for the other; one is a rock opera telling a serious dramatic story of Jesus in a big, powerful musical score ~ the other is a playful musical telling a serious story of Jesus in a funny and heartfelt way. You may be a Godspell person, or you may be a Jesus Christ Superstar person, or, like me, you may be a person who loves both!! If you are considering taking children, Godspell is the safer choice for sure; but if the young person is fairly sophisticated and/or is a theater fan, Superstar is a good choice as well (but not for a very young child, for whom a loud, dark show can be frightening at worst, and unpleasant at best). There was a group of children sitting behind me at Superstar (maybe 9-13) who all loved the show, but the youngest girl did seem to be having a bit of trouble following the fast-paced action.
Speaking of children, I saw the original runs of both Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell within a year of each other in the 1970s when I was 13, and loved both of them then, as I do now. I was raised Catholic, and was in Catholic school at the time, and each show actually spoke to me spiritually as well. I will forever be impressed with, and grateful to, my wonderful liberal Catholic parents, who valued theater and freedom of expression (and weren't afraid of questions), for exposing me to both. I've already introduced my 13 year old niece to Godspell (she's a HUGE fan) and hope to be able to take her to this production of Jesus Christ Superstar too - full circle :).