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SCRUTINY | Powerful Performances Carry Jesus Christ Superstar 50th Anniversary Production

By Paula Citron on December 8, 2021

Aaron LaVigne, Jenna Rubaii and the company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. (Photo: Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman - MurphyMade)
Aaron LaVigne, Jenna Rubaii and the company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. (Photo: Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman – MurphyMade)

David Mirvish & Work Light Productions/Jesus Christ Superstar 50th Anniversary Tour, lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, choreography by Drew McOnie, directed by Timothy Sheader, Princess of Wales Theatre, Nov. 30, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022. Tickets available here

This 50th anniversary tour production of Jesus Christ Superstar is brilliant, primarily for the integration of the theatrical elements. Presumably, director Timothy Sheader had a vision for the musical, and every aspect of the show dovetails perfectly into that central idea. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to remember a production with such a perfect union of sets, costumes, lighting, orchestrations, and, of course, staging and choreography.

That’s the good news, and this review is going to be all about that good news, but first, we have to get the bad news out of the way. Diction, diction, diction! Where is it? Singing the lyrics in an audible fashion was a part of the equation that the creators left out. On many occasions, it was like listening to a foreign language. Mercifully, powerful performances carried the day, but it would have been nice to hear every word.

Jesus Christ Superstar began life as a rock opera concept album in 1970. So wildly successful was the album, that lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber both pushed for a stage version, which happened in 1971, followed by a film, directed by Canadian Norman Jewison, in 1973. Since then, the musical has never been off the stage. In fact, one can safely say that somewhere in the world, there is always a production going on in a theatre, arena, concert hall or whatever.

Here’s an interesting fact. The names of Rice and Lloyd Webber are intrinsically linked together as a team, yet they only collaborated on six musicals together. In fact, the lion’s share of both men’s canon are works they created with other people. It was the instant fame that followed Jesus Christ Superstar that forever welded them together as musical (forgive the pun) superstars. Not bad for two audacious Brits who were only 26 (Rice) and 22 (Lloyd Webber) at the time.

The two men, both struggling songwriters, met in 1965. Rice’s ambition was to pen pop/rock hit tunes, but Lloyd Webber converted his new colleague to his own passion, namely musical theatre. The impetus for Jesus Christ Superstar, however, was all Rice, who had long been fascinated by the biblical character of Judas Iscariot, particularly in his motivation for betraying Christ. The musical may be called Jesus Christ Superstar, but it really is Judas’ show.

This North American 50th anniversary tour is a revival of the 2016 production mounted by London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, which won both the Audience Choice Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical, and the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival. It has since played Regent’s Park (2017), the Lyric Opera of Chicago (2018), London’s Barbican Centre (2019), and back to Regent’s Park (2020), before embarking on this tour with an American cast. Unlike the original stage version, the show, cleverly, has no intermission, and so creates a whole cloth for impact.

And now to the brilliance of this production. Director Sheader’s concept is two-fold. This production is both a rock concert and a contemporary dance performance. For inspiration, Sheader looked back to the 1970 concept album which puts the rock element front and centre, and from the very overture featuring a run of discordant heavy metal guitar riffs, we know we are in rock opera territory. I can also add that director Sheader’s staging helps make absolute sense of the songs. Nothing jars, nothing seems out of place. (Sheader, incidentally, is the artistic director of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.)

Unlike other musicals where singers are wired, in this show, they sing into microphones, sometimes on a stand, but more usually on a hand-held microphone, which captures the flavour of a rock concert. As well, several cast members (including Jesus) play guitars to accompany some of the songs. In other words, the rock element is in your face, even when the strings, woodwinds, and brass cut in. Tom Deering is credited as music supervisor and to him, I’m assuming, go the laurels for orchestrations that resurrect the rock-flavoured original concept album.

As for choreography, dancesmith Drew McOnie has squeezed movement into every possible place, but what I noticed immediately is that the dance mirrors the lyrics like they were joined at the hip. Hosanna is a Jewish hora circle dance, while Herod’s Song is a honkytonk, sleazy vaudeville song and dance number. The angry crowd calling for Jesus’ crucifixion just doesn’t stand around and shout, but has been tightly choreographed in movement expressing angry posture.

Tom Scutt’s set is a marvel. The two-tiered back scaffolding has the orchestra on the upper level, while the bottom is used by the cast when they aren’t centre stage. This scaffolding is broken up in the middle by an upside-down cross which also functions like a ramp. Only the important guys get to stand on the ramp, such as Pilate, Herod and the Pharisees.

On the other hand, the Disciples at the Last Supper stand behind the ramp which they use as their dining table. Perhaps the most memorable staging in the production is when the Disciples form themselves into the poses from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, wearing multi-coloured shawls to convey the artist’s palette.

As for costumes, what could be more contemporary than a hoodie? The cast first arrives running down the aisles and hurtling themselves onto the stage, each wearing a hoodie over tunics and trousers. Jesus never takes his hoodie off until the bitter end. Even the band is clothed in what looks like monks’ outfits which gives the illusion of a hoodie. This is a show that tells an ancient story, but with a very modern sensibility.

To fit in with the rock concert motif, lighting designer Lee Curran has created a sound and light show. As well as the usual stage lighting that follows the characters, Curran plays with the banks of light that run the length of the scaffolding, both above and below, as well as a cunning array of spotlights. Like the choreography, the lights mirror lyrics at key times.

As stated before, the performances are strong, even when you can’t hear the words. Director Sheader has staged the musical to highlight the emotional content. The energetic ensemble seems to feel every moment, as do the soloists.

To play Judas, the uber-talented Tyrone Huntley has been parachuted in from London where he starred in the Regent’s Park production. Huntley was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical, while winning the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Emerging Talent.

Now you can’t make this stuff up. Huntley was brought in for the Toronto run because the original Judas (James D. Beeks whose stage name is James T. Justis) was arrested on November 23, during the show’s run in Milwaukee, for having taken part in the United States Capitol attack on Jan. 6. It gets even better. Beeks, who is a noted Michael Jackson interpreter, was identified on the video by the very Michael Jackson jacket he wore to the Capitol. That Judas is a traitor is just too rich an irony.

Huntley is the epitome of Rice’s vision for Judas. Whether singing about his own troubled thoughts about Jesus, or communicating with Jesus himself about his concerns, Huntley is a man who is torn between loyalty and disaffection for his leader. His suicide comes directly out of his guilt when he realizes the enormity of his betrayal, and Huntley’s performance embraces a character of great complexity. And did I mention he can belt out a tune?

Similarly, Aaron LaVigne as Jesus is the embodiment of how Tim Rice envisioned him as a foil for Judas. A very human man who is filled with doubts, Jesus must come to terms with his earthly mission which culminates in his death. On route to that resolve, LaVigne seems to shrink and bend before our eyes. He looks haunted and exhausted, as he loses faith with both his Disciples, his followers, and his God.

Jenna Rubaii as Mary Magdalene has a sweet voice that suits her nature. She is empathy writ large in her understanding of Jesus’ trials and tribulations, while at the same time, having to cope with her own troubled romantic feelings for the man. In fact, in a story filled with emotional turmoil, Mary is a sea of tranquillity, despite her inner struggle, and Rubaii captures this image very well.

Tommy Sherlock’s Pilate is an interesting portrayal. He is dressed like a punk rocker who practically harasses Jesus to speak up in his own defense. His song is almost a harangue. On the other hand, we see a much more reflective Pilate when he is recounting his dream of a Jesus-like figure who will tarnish his name forever. Sherlock is impressive in two very different moods.

Paul Louis Lessard gives us the laugh we need as Herod with his cheeky song and dance number. Lessard really captures the mocking irony of the song as he cajoles Jesus to perform miracles on demand, like walking across his swimming pool.

Alvin Crawford as Caiaphas has such a deep bass voice that he has notes in his toes. He is majestic as the high priest, utterly convincing in his role as leader of the Temple. In contrast is Tyce Green as the priest Annas who is a high tenor, and a more agitated character than Caiaphas. He is also pushier on the fact that Jesus and his followers are a danger because the Romans might see them as rebels. The contrast in voices is wonderful between the two.

As two of the Disciples, both Eric A. Lewis as Simon Zealotes and Tommy McDowell as Peter have pleasant voices, but different purposes. Simon wants a rebellion against Rome, while Peter, who does deny Jesus three times, just wants to go back in time when Jesus and his ministry were just beginning. This wish for a simpler existence is a duet that he sings with Mary. Both Lewis and McDowell play guitars throughout the show.

What Sheader’s production really gets across is Rice’s main theme. Jesus’ followers have turned him into a superstar, a.k.a. a rock star, which to Judas, means that Jesus has moved away from performing God’s mission, and become a celebrity in and of himself.

Fifty years later, Jesus Christ Superstar is as provocative in its presentation of both a sympathetic Judas and a human, vulnerable Jesus, as it was in 1971 when it first took to the stage.

[Update: Dec. 9, 2021 — Cast member Jenna Rubaii’s last name was misspelt and corrected.]

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Paula Citron
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