Jesus Christ Superstar
Now Playing on Broadway!
Opens at Neil Simon Theatre March 22.
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Des McAnuff
Choreographed by Lisa Shriver
Musical direction by Rick Fox
Performed by Paul Nolan, Josh Young, Chilina Kennedy, Brent Carver, Bruce Dow et al.
Avon Theatre, Stratford
May 16 to October 29, 2011 – Extended to Nov. 6
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
Jesus Christ Superstar – Stratford’s Must-See
When Director Des McAnuff came on stage before the opening of Stratford Festival’s Jesus Christ Superstar, he brought bad news and good news. First, he told us the show was delayed about 15 minutes because Paul Nolan, the actor playing Jesus, has a viral bronchial infection, but thankfully, he had now decided he would go on and sing the show. Then McAnuff told us that if we wanted to unwrap a candy during the show, we should go right ahead. The score would be loud enough to drown out any noise from crackling cellophane.
Actually, the loud rock music worked in Nolan’s favour, too. His scratchy voice sounded just fine. (Besides, we already know he can sing – we heard him two years ago with his wonderful voice as Tony in West Side Story.) So even though Nolan’s voice wasn’t at peak performance, his acting did not suffer with his illness. His Jesus showed every bit of his agony over his last week on earth.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a true rock opera. The entire passion story is sung. The loud guitar licks evoke the 70s sound of the late, great Jimi Hendrix. Like Jimi, Jesus Christ Superstar is an Experience, both in music and theology.
The story takes place at the end of Christ’s life. It starts as Jesus is becoming wildly popular. He is followed by his 12 disciples and the crowds are growing; the “buzz” is all about Jesus. It’s Palm Sunday and the masses are shouting hosanna, and waving palm branches as Jesus approaches. The high priests, Caiaphas and Annas, are jealous of the attention he’s getting. Mary Magdalene, who is an ardent supporter of Jesus, tries to calm him when he realizes that the priests are plotting against him, singing “Everything’s Alright.”
Jesus is upset by merchants doing business in the holy temple, and Judas is worried about how Jesus’ popularity is going to cause problems. Judas begins talk with Caiaphas and Annas about turning Jesus over to them.
Act II opens with The Last Supper, and then Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, knowing his death is imminent, but showing he’s not ready for it. Judas kisses Jesus as his means of identifying him, and Jesus is arrested. As Jesus predicted, Peter denies knowing him. Pilate isn’t sure what to do with Jesus, and so King Herod is involved. Judas hangs himself in remorse. Jesus is given 39 lashes, then crucified.
Paul Nolan, a self-described farm boy from Saskatchewan, is brilliant as Jesus. As lyricist Tim Rice intended, Paul portrays Jesus as a man tormented by what is expected of him. Chilina Kennedy is a loyal, loving Mary Magdalene. Her anguished rendition of “I don’t know how to love him” is truly touching. Josh Young as the traitor Judas shows his amazing vocal range. Brent Carver is perfect as Pontius Pilate. He portrays Pilate as arrogance mixed with self-doubt. Bruce Dow is King Herod – he manages to delight the audience with his flapper-like song without going over the top. To have these five great musical theatre performers together on one stage is amazing.
Adding to this remarkable cast is a Canadian Idol and a near Canadian Idol. Melissa O’Neil is Martha and Aaron Walpole is Annas. Both have opportunities to show off their powerful voices. The rest of the cast includes strong singers, backed by an outstanding orchestra.
The set bears the influence of Director Des McAnuff. Like his famous Jersey Boys, Jesus Christ Superstar takes place on a steel frame, with an upper area around the stage, and moveable staircases as needed. Dates and information are projected on big screens. The date starts at 2011, with the cast dressed in today’s clothing, then the calendar flips back to 33. But throughout, there is the strong feel of the 70s, when Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber first created the recording that then grew into a show. The costumes change eras to reflect what is happening in the story.
This show is the must-see for Stratford 2011. I say that, but I’m of the boomer generation. I come from the era when all my friends and I, as young children, attended Sunday School. We know our New Testament. We also know and love 70s rock and roll – the music of our teenage years. Only those with the unusual combination of knowing their Bible and loving hard rock will truly appreciate Jesus Christ Superstar. For me, sitting in the audience on opening night was a wonderful nostalgic and religious experience.
We wish Paul Nolan well, and look forward to hearing him sing once he beats this infection. But even without wanting to hear his voice in top form, I would be making plans to see this production again.
Jesus Christ Superstar continues at the Avon Theatre, Stratford until October 29. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-567-1600 or check www.stratfordshakespearefestival.ca.
Note: This review was written in May 2011 — This production of Jesus Christ Superstar is now on an open-ended run on Broadway!