'Jesus Christ Superstar' at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre
The 50th Anniversary Tour
From a Catholic/Christian point of view, it might appear a tad incongruous to stage Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ during the Advent season in preparation for the celebration of Christmas and the birth of the Saviour. The musical is a loose Gospel retelling of how Jesus Christ spent the last week of his life as seen through the eyes of Judas, the betrayer.
In 2018, Jonathan Merritt wrote in the Washington Post that: “Superstar” flopped when it debuted in Britain in 1970, and was banned by the BBC for being sacrilegious. When it hit Broadway the next year, the musical was widely criticized by Jews and Christians — as well as by Webber himself. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/04/02)) I can even recall a moment from the iconic 70s television show ‘All in the Family’ where Archie Bunker made a side swiping comment about making Jesus into a ‘Superstar’.
From the same online article, Merritt also alluded to a comment Sir Andrew made regarding ‘Superstar’: “…(It) was really not an irreligious piece, as has been so often suggested. In its own way and in its own time, it was simply a work attempting to ask a couple of questions, the chief of which was stated by Bob Dylan some years ago: ‘Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?’ (“https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/04/02)
In a woke culture in which we now find ourselves where religion and faith might be cancelled or ignored, this production of ‘Superstar’ is not an irreligious piece as stated above. Instead, this 50th anniversary tour answers if Judas does have God on his side while providing some important context for audiences. I don’t want to spoil how it does, but the fact that it is done suggests this ‘Superstar’ is more than mere ‘fluff’ entertainment for the holidays.
And that’s exactly what is accomplished on the Princess of Wales stage.
And done quite well, I might add.
Nearly flawless, but more about this in a moment.
Every inch of space is utilized to maximum effect on this multi level set without appearing cramped. The orchestra is located on the top level where some of the actors suddenly and mysteriously appear when my attention was focused on another part of the stage. Slightly angled just off-centre stage is a runway in the shape of a crucifix (and yes, those who know the show are aware of how this runway will be used at the end). This runway also becomes the scene for the Last Supper.
Upon hearing the astounding and soaring solo and choral vocal work along with Drew McOnie’s hypnotic, dazzling and ‘to die for’ choreography, this 50th anniversary production still packs an emotional wallop. The only slight quibble I did have was momentary unbalance of orchestra and singers in some of the songs. Even though I knew the lyrics, I put myself in the shoes of those who might be seeing JCS for the first time and could not hear some of the songs. Again, just a slight quibble if I had to get nit picky.
I continue to marvel how ‘Superstar’ still stands on its two feet when placed in the hands of creative individuals who assuredly make it work. Lee Curran’s Lighting Design heightens so many poignant moments especially in The Garden of Gethsemane and in Judas’s Death. Without spoiling for future audiences, the lighting effect at the top of the show and at the closing between Jesus and Judas becomes mesmerizingly haunting.
Director Timothy Sheader impressively keeps the production moving forward at a heart pumping pulse right to the jaw dropping emotional climax of the title song and the Crucifixion. The remarkably eye-catching prominent ensemble choreography in ‘What’s the Buzz’ is sensational and stunning to watch. From my seat, this tight knit ensemble impeccably worked as a single unit in hearing simultaneously the words and the music. Both The Last Supper and the 39 Lashes drew gasps from me for two dramatic tableaux moments.
The ensemble work becomes exquisitely breathtaking so many times but I’ll just mention here to pay attention to the staging of the title song and ‘The Temple’. Paul Louis Lessard’s Herod soundly provided a few seconds of comic relief in his song, but what worked tremendously well for me here was that tinge that something awful was still going to occur. As Pilate, Tommy Sherlock’s visceral turmoil in confronting the crowd in deciding if Jesus is to be crucified is terrific.
Now for the triumvirate around whom this production centres.
Jenna Rubaii’s Mary Magdalene divinely reaches inside of her very being in ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ and ‘Could We Start Again, Please’ to showcase very real human emotions of care and selfless love. One may wonder why the character of Mary remains with the apostles with all sorts of speculation ensuing, but who cares? Rubaii creates an authentic person who reaches out to comfort the Saviour in his moments of tired weakness and vulnerability.
Without going into specific details of what occurred before the Toronto stop Tyrone Huntley, who played Judas in the original 2016 production of Jesus Christ Superstar at London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, reprises his role as Judas until January 2, 2022. He will only join the touring company for the Toronto engagement of the show. Huntley’s exuberant tour de force performance as the anguished, bitter Judas remained palpably imbedded within my memory even a few days later. Stellar work, indeed.
At the performance I saw, Pepe Nufrio (Jesus and Judas standby) delivered a sterling character portrayal of Jesus. Nufrio’s Jesus is not the blond-haired, blue-eyed persona we might see in modern photographs, but a man who (even though is exhausted and tired) remains firmly rooted and convicted in knowing who he is and what has been set out for him to do.
Final Thoughts: Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to profile Aaron LaVigne who plays Jesus in this production. I asked him what message he hoped audiences would take away with them upon leaving the theatre. LaVigne’s response: “Hold a little bit more space for other people. Hold more space than you normally would for others.”
This message radiated clarity for me upon seeing how Messrs. Huntley and Nufrio gaze at each other at the beginning and conclusion of the musical. Again, I don’t want to spoil it here for future audiences as I’m assuming the same occurs when Aaron LaVigne performs. One must see this live to understand it and experience it.
Final Word: This ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ remains exhilarating and inspiring. A wonderful gift of live theatre to give someone this Christmas/holiday season.
Approximate running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Work Light Productions presents the Regent Park’s Theatre London Production of Jesus Christ Superstar
50th Anniversary Tour
Lyrics by Tim Rice and Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Timothy Sheader.
Choreography y Drew McOnie
Music Director/Conductor: Shawn Gough with North American Music Supervision by David Holcenberg
Lighting Design by Lee Curran
Co-Sound Design by Keith Caggiano and Nick Lidster
Scenic Hair and Costume Design by Tom Scutt
With Aaron LaVigne, Tyrone Huntley, Jenna Rubaii, Alvin Crawford, Tommy Sherlock, Tyce Green, Pepe Nufrio, Eric A. Lewis, Paul Louis Lessard, Tommy McDowell. David André, Sara Andreas, Cou8rtney Arango, Wesley J. Barnes, Milena J. Comeau, Lydia Ruth Dawson, Derek Ferguson, Brian Golub, Brittany Rose Hammond, Garfield Hammonds, Quiana Holmes, Darrell T. Joe, Sheila Jones, Jacob Lacopo, Danny McHugh, Jenny Mollet, Sarah Parker, Erick Patrick, SandyRedd, Cooper Stanton, Chelsea Williams
Note: all remaining performances of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ from December 26 - January 2, 2022 at the Princess of Wales have been cancelled due to Covid infections backstage. Check the website for future productions.