Let’s assume that director Stacey Stephens was well-intentioned and in search of genuine resonance when he opted to set his Fiddlehead Theatre Company production of “Jesus Christ Superstar’’ in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, amid the rubble of the Twin Towers.
This misbegotten “Superstar’’ would still have to be a lot better than it is to avoid the fatal whiff of exploitation.
What we’re left with instead is a feverish farrago that casts precious little light on the events of Sept. 11, 2001; on the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice; or on the final days of Jesus.
Like a high school teacher determined to make a vintage novel “relevant’’ to a classroom full of restive students, Stephens chases topicality at every turn, from a nod to Shepard Fairey’s famous Barack Obama “Hope’’ poster to a pre-crucifixion beating of Jesus designed to evoke police brutality to a swarm of hyperactive TV reporters, emblematic of the 24-hour cable-news mediascape we live in.
Obviously, this is far from the first production of “Superstar’’ to abound in contemporary flourishes. Rice and Lloyd Webber salted their rock opera with deliberate anachronisms. (It premiered in 1971 on Broadway, where it was revived three years ago.) Stephens’s decision to depict Mary Magdalene as transgender, and thus a representation of the social outcasts whom Jesus surrounded himself with, is an effective touch. The director does bring visual verve to certain scenes.
But this spectator, at least, could not shake the feeling that 9/11 has been used to lend Fiddlehead’s “Superstar’’ a gravitas it otherwise does little to earn. The production makes no persuasive or consistent connection between the journey of Jesus and the repercussions of the worst terrorist attack in US history.
Beyond that, one is struck by the fact many of the elements that Stephens takes such pains to contemporize are already embedded in “Jesus Christ Superstar’’ in its original form. In this sung-through rock opera, which features Lloyd Webber’s most melodically catchy score, lyricist Rice focused heavily on the machinery of hype and on the emptiness, inanity, and socially corrosive effects of celebrity culture. (Those themes would also be woven through “Evita,’’ Rice’s 1979 collaboration with Lloyd Webber.)
The Fiddlehead production is off-putting from the start, opening as it does with news footage from 9/11, the images so familiar but still so raw and wrenching: smoke billowing from the towers, terrified New Yorkers scattering in fear and confusion. Then the onstage action (set design is by Mac Young) begins with a similar scene. We see dazed citizens staggering amid I-beams and debris, first responders helping the injured, TV reporters pressing survivors for interviews. And then out of the rubble of Ground Zero walks Jesus, a limp Mary Magdalene in his arms.
His rescue of Mary makes Jesus a media phenomenon (“The Savior and Our New Hope,’’ reads one Fox News headline). This average-guy-turned-messiah spreads his gospel the 21st century way: By authoring a best-selling book titled “Holding the World in My Hands,’’ which he signs for eager customers. (All of this clashes with the libretto’s references to Rome, Gethsemane, and the rest, but never mind.) As the contemporary correlative to chasing money-lenders from the temple, Jesus knocks over a souvenir table at Ground Zero. Soon enough, Jesus’s fame triggers a backlash, and the citizens who once lionized him are baying for blood.
The title role has always been a near-impossible one, and Justin Raymond Reeves is not able to surmount the challenge. Alternating between a complacent smirk and a vaguely annoyed expression, Reeves’s Jesus radiates little of the charisma that would explain those adoring hordes, though admittedly Rice’s libretto doesn’t give him much to work with.
As Judas, Devon Stone is occasionally compelling but seldom touches the true depths of anguish we need to feel from the conflicted betrayer of Jesus. Scott Caron does a creditable job as Mary Magdalene, though his performance of Mary’s big number, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,’’ is vocally wobbly. He and other cast members are sometimes overpowered by the orchestra, or they don’t project forcefully enough — something that happens in far too many Boston-area musicals, and not just at Fiddlehead. Even when the words are sometimes wince-inducing, we need to be able to hear them.
Two standouts in the cast are Gene Dante as King Herod and Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia as Pontius Pilate. Dante brings a Vegas sizzle to the rousing, taunting rendition of “King Herod’s Song,’’ biting off lines like “Prove to me that You’re no fool/Walk across my swimming pool.’’ Mancinas-Garcia, for his part, convincingly traces Pilate’s journey from cocksure leader to helpless pawn of the mob. But they’re not enough to rescue this “Jesus Christ Superstar.’’
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Stacey Stephens
Set, Mac Young. Costumes, Stacey Stephens. Lights, Michael Clark-Wonson. Choreography, Kira Cowan-Troilo. Music director, Balint Varga.
Presented by Fiddlehead Theatre Company
At: Strand Theatre, Dorchester, through May 3
Tickets: $25-$45, 617-229-6494, www.fiddleheadtheatre.com