Jesus Christ Superstar – 2021

A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration

Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice put together their concept of a rock opera based on the end of Jesus’ life as we know it from the New Testament Gospels. That was actually more than 50 years ago. They were unable to convince any producers to put their rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar on stage. So instead, they recorded a 2 record set on vinyl and put it out on October 27, 1970.   

There was one glitch – the BBC refused to play any of their songs because the music was considered “sacrilegious”. But other than that, the record was a hit.

I remember bringing the album home from the library to listen to it when I was in high school. I played the rather scratchy album on my little portable record player with a worn-out needle. Even so, I loved it.

The popularity of the album convinced producers to put the rock opera on stage. In 1971 JCS arrived on Broadway and in 1972 it opened in London’s West End. Then in 1973 the movie came out.

Aaron LaVigne as Jesus and Jenna Rubaii as Mary

So the 50th Anniversary Tour was designed to celebrate the record album that came out in 1970. We presume Covid wreaked havoc with the scheduling so it has finally arrived in Toronto in December 2021 – just in time for the 50th anniversary of the first stage shows.

Jesus Christ Superstar focuses on the relationship between Jesus and Judas, and I appreciate it showing what Judas is going through. We know Jesus agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane about his impending trial and ultimate crucifixion. But what about Judas?  Did he just betray Jesus for the money, or did he agonize over that decision? My Sunday School upbringing left me with the belief that Judas was evil and greedy. He turned God’s son over to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver. But Jesus Christ Superstar shows that Judas has his concerns about Jesus’ stirring up trouble. The two were friends and Judas tries to warn Jesus about the future.

If this performance of Jesus Christ Superstar is supposed to honour  the original album, then it has, with strong singers in the lead roles. Aaron LaVigne as Jesus has the perfect voice for rock, and he is also able to show the wretched agony Jesus was feeling. His “Gethsemane” is heartfelt. Jenna Rubaii as Mary shows her caring spirit with “Everything’s Alright” and she brings it home with “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”.

But Judas is the best surprise of all. Tyrone Huntley is a last minute addition to the cast, and he is in fine form with a powerful voice. Huntley, from the U.K., has been added for the Toronto stay only. Here’s an interesting trivia tidbit:  The role of Judas was previously played by James T. Justis (stage name), AKA James Beek. Beek was arrested for allegedly taking part in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. He was identified using video clips taken by insurrectionists. Then the FBI sat through productions of Jesus Christ Superstar in San Francisco and Milwaukee to identify him.

There are a few things about this production bothering me.  Most of the main characters have hand-held mics and some are even on cords. I find the mics an annoying distraction and I wonder why the inconspicuous face mics normally worn in musical theatre aren’t used.  How is Judas supposed to tie a noose, holding a mic?  How is Jesus supposed to hold a mic while manacled?  Plus, while holding the mic, some of the characters turned towards the audience to sing, rather than face the person to whom they were singing.  Jesus Christ Superstar is an opera: all dialogue is sung, there are no spoken words.  Therefore, all conversations are sung to each other and they should be looking at the person they are conversing with. 

The choreography is repetitive. Most of the dance numbers seem to be the same movements over and over again. 

When it came time for the 39 lashes, Jesus arrives with blood on his back as if the lashes were already given. I assumed that rather than sit through the 39 strokes, they had been cut to make the show shorter.  But no, the music of the whipping begins to play. Instead of lashes, different characters run forward with handfuls of gold glitter and throw it at Jesus’ back. If the glitter is meaningful, I don’t get it: it just seems inappropriate and takes the audience away from what’s happening.   

I love Jesus Christ Superstar and this is a vocally polished performance. If I seem critical, it’s because I keep thinking back to the 2011 Stratford Festival production, directed by Des MacAnuff. I was so taken with it and its all-star cast that I remember it vividly 10 years later. Unfortunately this touring production does not live up to that spectacular Stratford show, which then went on to Broadway. (My review of that show is here: https://www.entertainthisthought.com/2012/03/06/jesus-christ-superstar)

Please note that the show now on stage in Toronto runs 90 minutes without an intermission, presumably to limit crowd movement thereby preventing any spread of Covid. Vaccine records are checked at the door, and masks must be worn at all times.

Jesus Christ Superstar continues with eight shows a week at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. W., Toronto, Ontario until January 2. Call TicketKing 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or visit www.mirvish.com for tickets.

Photo: Aaron LaVigne as Jesus and Jenna Rubaii as Mary Magdalene. Photo by Matthew Murray.

Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Choreographed by Drew McOnie
Music Supervision Tom Deering
Performed by Aaron LaVigne, Tyrone Huntley, Jenna Rubaii, Alvin Crawford, Tommy Sherlock, Tyce Green, Eric. A. Lewis, Paul Louis Lessar, Tommy McDowell, Sarah Parker, Brian Golub, Garfield Hammonds, Darrell T. Joe, et al.
David Mirvish and Work Light Productions
Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
Nov. 30, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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