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Sunday, 5 June 2011

Review: Jesus Christ Superstar - Triumphant

Paul Nolan (centre) as Jesus. Photo: D. Hou
Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Des McAnuff; Musical Direction by Rick Fox
Choreographed by Lisa Shriver
Designed by Robert Brill (set), Paul Tazewell (costume), Howell Binkley (light), Jim Neil (sound), Sean Nieuwenhuis (video)

The Story: As he has spread the message of God the prophet Jesus Christ has gained a great following, and some great enemies. One of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, is fearful that the more people believe him to be god-like, the more he will attract the unwanted attention of the Roman government who might punish all Jews, not just those who follow him.  The Jewish High Priests share this concern, and in the days before Passover, Judas asks them to help him stop Jesus – a betrayal with far-reaching consequences.

There is a certain generation of theatre-goers who need no introduction to this musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Records were worn out and parents driven up the wall with the soundtrack on heavy rotation, it even reached #1 on the Billboard chart in 1971. It’s no wonder why: the Bible’s New Testament, set to squealing electric guitar, piety and rebellion in one sweet package - what’s not to love?

And let’s face it, at the risk of giving him a Messiah complex, no one does modern musicals better than Des McAnuff. And no one assembles better talent than the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and with that combination BAM! a whole generation is set to discover Jesus Christ Superstar again.
Paul Nolan. Photo: D. Hou

The superstars of this production are certainly deserving of the title. First, there is Paul Nolan as Jesus, who even though he was battling a virus opening night barely seemed to struggle with the demanding vocals (he must be miraculous at full strength). Showing off his acting chops, Mr. Nolan’s savior was decidedly the human being Judas believes him to be, displaying great trepidation with overwhelming crowds of wanna-be apostles and the sick wanting to be healed – he even loses his saintly patience from time to time. He also keeps Mary Magdalene at arm’s length (most of the time) as if to keep her from being too hurt as his death approaches.

Josh Young. Photo: D. Hou
As the equally doubtful Judas Iscariot, Josh Young is a powerhouse singer, never in danger of being dominated by the loud musical score (which thankfully was much less earsplitting than last year’s Evita). Mr. Young takes the traitor, gives him a hint of jealousy of Mary’s relationship with Jesus, throws in a dash of fearful bravado, adds a smidgeon of suspense and voila! A memorable, dashing, tragic Judas is born.

As moving as her performance is in Grapes of Wrath, it is a great pleasure to hear Chilina Kennedy sing again in the role of Mary Magdalene. As determined an apostle as any follower, Ms. Kennedy’s Magdalene not only cares for Jesus but acts as den-mother to all the disciples, even Judas. In fact, there seems to be a love-triangle brewing under the surfaces of the three main characters, which, given the ends that both Jesus and Judas meet, gives another level of tragedy to Mary – perhaps in love with two men (in different ways), she is the one left alone.

Brent Carver. Photo D. Hou
There are a number of other amazing performances here, but two stand out:  as Pontius Pilate Brent Carver is the epitome of how to act through singing; his Pilate is haunted and haunts the memory long afterward. And in the almost-11-o’clock number Herod’s Song, Bruce Dow is a twisted, lascivious Herod more interested in doing the Charlston or playing his sparkly grand piano a la Liberace than in this boring man some call the Christ.

Hip-hop dance moves, urban street-chic costuming, an electric ticker-tape count-down, giant retro-projections, a couple of Canadian Idols*, and an enormous lever that pushes Jesus out over the audience breaking that fourth wall - the Festival spared no expense on this production and if you don't come away invigorated and humming you were at the wrong show.

Jesus Christ Superstar continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 29th, although I’m thinking an extension is likely. (Unless it ends up in Toronto or Broadway first.)

Bruce Dow (centre) and cast. Photo: D. Hou
*Aaron Walpole (Annas) and Melissa O'Neil (Martha)

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