Jesus Christ Superstar at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

(May 20, 2011) We really didn’t know quite what to expect from a live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar. Would there be dialogue between the musical numbers to flesh out the rock opera’s storyline? (There was none.) Would the musical arrangements be similar to those in the legendary 1970 recording? (They were, though a few changes to the songs jumped out at us, like a new verse in “Hosanna”.) Would the orchestra appear on stage? (For the most part, the musicians stayed in the pit.) Would the orchestra really rock? (It really did.)

Importantly, how would it all sound? To our great relief, the audio mix in the Avon Theatre was superb — clean and crisp, loud but not overwhelming. The instruments and voices were all clearly heard (too often in musical productions, when everyone’s wearing mics, the sound of a large ensemble, with everyone wearing mics, is shrill and muddy), and the stripped-down but full-sounding orchestra couldn’t have been better. An able French horn player, identified in our program as one Derek Conrod, made the most of his opportunities.

Des McAnuff

The excellent sound meant that there was nothing to interfere with the enjoyment of the performances of Josh Young, as Judas, and Chilina Kennedy, as Mary Magdalene. Before the end of the first verse of “Heaven on Their Minds” we’d forgotten all about Murray Head; Mr. Young has a better voice. And he’s a rocker; Van Halen should call next time he needs a new lead singer. We had had trouble imagining how an actor could truly “act” without any spoken lines (our experience at the opera had left us with low expectations). But Ms. Kennedy was wonderfully expressive, visually as well as musically. In fact, there was plenty of acting; as in any well-directed musical, director Des McAnuff made sure his audiences never lacked for something to watch on stage.

Chilina Kennedy

We love the music of Superstar enough that we probably would have been satisfied if the performers had simply stood at the front of the stage and given a concert. But this show succeeds as a dramatic production.

Of course, no show is perfect. Although Paul Nolan has a fine voice and nails the look with his long wavy locks, his Jesus seemed unnecessarily passive at times, and his vocal numbers all got off to weak starts. In his grand Tchaikovsky-esque ballad “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say),” we heard too little of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melody — and Mr. Nolan didn’t seem comfortable yet with the improvisations that someone was teaching him. The supporting cast, including Aaron Walpole as Annas, had strong voices across the board, but Mr. Walpole seemed glued to the stage and looked very much as if he was wearing one of those blow-up sumo wrestling costumes that you see at neighborhood carnivals.

For Christian believers, the new production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) is a bracing reminder that Jesus of Nazareth was equipped with a full range of human emotions. Orthodox Christians understand, of course, that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, but despite the New Testament evidence that he also exhibited feelings of anger, betrayal, weariness, and fear, we often avoid thinking about his human side; we tend to think of him primarily as an idealized, living embodiment of the Beatitudes.

That may explain why, 40 years ago, many Christians reacted strongly to Jesus Christ Superstar‘s focus on Jesus’ human side, an emphasis that was interpreted as implicitly denying His divine nature. Perhaps the hardest pill for believers to swallow was the suggestion in Superstar (for which there is no evidence in the Gospels) that Mary Magdalene was romantically attracted to Jesus. Yet it is plain from the Gospels that men and women saw Jesus as someone who could help them gratify other kinds of worldly desires and ambitions; it’s no great stretch to imagine that a woman might have found Jesus sexually desirable. It’s true that the prophet wrote of the Messiah that “he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). But Jesus was still a man; do Christians really think that He wore a magical protective shield that made it impossible for women to see Him in “that” way? Of course, if Superstar had portrayed Jesus as reciprocating lustful feelings, that would have been another matter. We’re grateful that, in this show, Des McAnuff didn’t go there.

Back when the two-disc album was released in 1970, Emsworth listened to Jesus Christ Superstar over and over and played the tunes with high school friends (our little band did an instrumental version of “Superstar” for the senior talent show). We still know the music backwards and forwards. We were therefore startled, midway through the second act, to hear one of the guitarists playing an intro to a song we didn’t recognize. There it was in the program: “Could We Start Again, Please.” We did a little research when we got home and saw that the song was in the original 1971 London production and has been in other productions since. We didn’t know! We’d never managed to see Superstar on stage and had deliberately avoided the movie versions.

Perhaps Webber and Rice left “Could We Start Again, Please” off the original 1970 album for reasons of space. Or perhaps they wrote it specially to bulk up the stage production, or perhaps to give the actor playing Peter another featured number. Either way, we thought the musically cliched soft-rock duet was a weak number that would have fit better in Sunset Boulevard (think “As If We Never Said Goodbye”) than in Superstar, where it interrupted the momentum of Passion week. And what sense did it make for such a song to be sung by Peter and Mary Magdalen? The song’s theme is that Jesus’ ministry took a wrong turn — but it was Judas, not Peter, who had become dissatisfied with the Messianic aspect of our Lord’s ministry.

On the day we saw a Superstar matinee, director Des McAnuff surprised everyone by appearing on stage to introduce himself and the show. Since we were about to see only the third preview performance, he explained, the show was still being tweaked; nevertheless, he assured us, it was for all practical purposes in “final form”. (There wasn’t much that seemed to need “tweaking”.) Only afterward did we wonder how to account for Mr. McAnuff’s cameo. Since it was already ten minutes past two when he stepped up, we figure that that the stage manager asked him to vamp while the crew took care of technical difficulties backstage. (Given his relationship with Tim Rice, we hope Des McAnuff has been thinking about the possibility of mounting Chess at the Stratford Festival. But the Festival doesn’t need a rock musical every year.)

Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t a long show. Despite the delay, Mr. McAnuff’s remarks, and an intermission, the performance we saw was over before four.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Chess! Stratford people, you should do Chess! I am available to play Florence.

  2. The last thirty-five years just flew by, didn’t they?

    I don’t know of any G & S in Ontario this summer, but it’s a good year for Shaw plays at Niagara-on-the-Lake. You wouldn’t go wrong with Candida (I did an Emsworth review), friends of ours have already seen and loved My Fair Lady, and Heartbreak House is classic Shaw.

  3. A group in my home town mounted a production of this show in the 70s. It’s shocking now to think how much longer it’s been since then than it had been since the show came out. I auditioned and ended up as an audience member, and when I saw it I was shocked at how all my friends were in it. To my mind, they were a dream cast, but I wasn’t satisfied with any of them.

    Now that my passport’s good again, I need to start looking into entertainment possibilities north of the border. I’d love to see some good Shaw, or Gilbert & Sullivan.

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