|photo by Andrew Eccles|
by Kelly Bedard
Jesus Christ Superstar is inarguably the biggest hit The Stratford Festival has had in years. But that was fairly predictable. Current Artistic Director Des McAnuff is, at heart, a rock musical man and he’d been dreaming of JCS for quite some time. After the arrival of Josh Young in last year’s Evita and with the maturation that title role brought to ingénue Chilina Kennedy, the cast was finally starting to take shape to be able to pull off the massive task of the Lloyd-Webber/Tim Rice rock opera. Now, the soldout, extended-run breakout is headed not only to La Jolla playhouse but all the way to Broadway come March, where hopefully we’ll see some of Stratford’s best get some Tony love.
As for me, I liked the production an awful lot. But with a few weak points and a central character interpretation that’s pretty alienating, I think there are better things at the festival this year, which is why its biggest hit is only my #6 choice.
review when he first appeared on the Stratford scene playing the awesome role of narrator Che in Evita (from the same writers as JCS). But with Judas, he steps up his game with a no-holds-barred attack of the challenging role and the most committed emotional performance in a musical this year. His beautiful voice, so mellifluous and comforting on his excellent self-titled first album, gets pushed to insane heights as he runs head first at production numbers like Gethsemene, which famously intimidates the likes of the legendary Colm Wilkinson. With the full weight of his strong and meticulously trained voice behind him, Young hollers at the high notes with the conviction of a complete character actor- his voice portraying Judas’ frustration and heartbreak first and Young’s impressive vocal range second (a great feat for a triple threat for whom singing is the priority by far). An audience member bored with Jesus could easily spend the entire play watching Judas, even standing silently in the corner, as he emotes the arc of the production’s most complex character.
But the rest of the production as a whole is fairly flawless. Chilina Kennedy is grounded and believable as Mary Magdalene. She’s feisty and determined while also selling her romantic throughlines as well as can be expected. The historical figure’s seedier side gets pretty much completely ignored but I’m mostly okay with that (especially within the added love triangle context; Judas’ accusations could seem like unfair slander but the otherwise annoying triangle makes them desperate overcompensation instead, which is kind of cool). Bruce Dow is the best he’s been in years as King Herod- just funny enough without taking it too far- and the always excellent Brent Carver does what he can with the incredibly tricky and somewhat thankless role of Pontius Pilate. Marcus Nance, meanwhile, is a captivating Caiaphas, his richly resonant voice elevating a vocal part that can often sound frog-like. The excitable crowd of a chorus, too, is sensational, particularly featured apostles Mike Nadajewski and Lee Siegel.
|photos by David Hou|
The use of lights and projections is one of the production’s real strokes of genius. Jesus’ cross is lit up almost like a marquee- the final act of history’s most out-of-control PR campaign- and the projection of gospel verses across the stage at the end is the final, haunting touch, reminding the audience of the enormous legacy left by the characters we just spent hours getting know on a small personal level.
In an excellent parallelism, I’m not convinced that Jesus Christ Superstar is the truly special work that general opinion seems to believe that it is. I think it’s great, easily above average. But divine? Perhaps not.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, ON until November 6th.