Stage Door Review

Jesus Christ Superstar

Friday, December 10, 2021

✭✭✭

music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book & lyrics by Tim Rice, directed by Timothy Sheader

David Mirvish, Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto

December 2-23, 2021

Chorus: “Do you think you're what they say you are?”

For most Torontonians the first large-scale musical they will have seen since March 2020 will be the 50th anniversary production of Jesus Christ Superstar. David Mirvish is presenting the Work Light Productions presentation of the Andrew Lloyd’s Webber musical that premiered at London’s Regent’s Park Theatre in 2016, was revived in 2020 and is now on a North American tour.

The last time most Torontonians would have seen Superstar was most likely the Stratford Festival’s production in 2011. Audiences will see that this production directed by Timothy Sheader is very different from the Stratford production directed by Des McAnuff. On the minus side the major roles at Stratford were much better sung than they are in the current production. On the plus side while McAnuff was content to wow us with a lots of superficial glitz, Sheader actually focusses on the third word of the show’s title, something that McAnuff virtually ignored.

Tom Scutt’s set reflects the greater complexity of Sheader’s vision. Scutt’s set is also metallic and two storeys, the comparison ends there. Robert Brill’s design for McAnuff was a completed U-shaped surround complete with scrolling ticker to set the time and place of the action. Scutt’s set, in contrast, looks like an abandoned building project. I-beams form the outline of two storeys with suggestions of the beginnings of a third. The middle section is incomplete. There lies a huge metal cross (fallen from the building?) at a diagonal that the cast uses mostly as a runway, thus immediately linking religion and showbiz. The edges of the uprights of the building are being reclaimed by nature, specifically by olive trees whose crowns rise above the second storey. From a distance the set looks like two sets of outlined squares. We may notice, before Lee Curran’s fantastic lighting points it out, that every abutment of one square with another forms a cross.

Is Scutt suggesting that Christianity has been abandoned by the modern world but is being reclaimed by a natural desire for? There’s no way to know. What is certain is that Scutt has created a background imbued with a wealth of symbolism.

The 15-piece band is placed on the second storey of the set and is visible to all. This is an old style of alienation effect used to make us constantly aware that we are seeing a theatrical production. Sheader reinforces this point in another important way through his use of microphones – some hand-held, some on stands. Most modern musical productions use lavalier microphones, tiny wireless devices that can be sewn into costumes or wigs.

Sheader’s production has the main characters deliberately use large dynamic microphones to symbolize who is in control of the discourse on stage at any given time. Performers may pass a mic to another to show a transfer of power. Caiaphas, Annas and the three priests enter carrying what look like staffs of authority. When they sing they merely turn the staff end for end showing the staff is really a hand-held mic with a very long handle.

The effect of the visible band and the visible microphones is to make the presentation of the action non-naturalistic. We are always aware we are watching a stage performance. Besides this, Sheader has all the main characters accompany themselves on a guitar. Jesus carries one with him most of the time, but Pilate has one too. The notion is that all the characters are performers in more than one sense. Sheader uses this non-naturalistic mode pf presentation to underline the show’s concern with showbiz and performance as evident in the show’s title.

Jesus, Judas, Herod, the priests, Pilate all carry microphones but the populace at large do not. The question Judas poses is whether Jesus has shifted from preaching his new gospel and has begun to create a cult around himself rather than around his ideas. Of the many productions of Superstar I’ve seen, Sheader’s is the first to make this essential point so clear. Sheader even goes so far as to have Jesus crucified on a cross make of a microphone stand and boom.

Scutt’s costume design uses modern means to evoke biblical era drapery without losing any of its modernity. Except for the priests and officials, Jesus and the general populace are clad in leggings and trainers with various combinations of T-shirts, loose jersey wraps and hoodies. Jesus wears his hair in a high fade with a man bun, making him look unlike any other Jesus you’ve seen while reminding us of the 2010s when this production first premiered. At the start of the show, the colour scheme is made entirely of greys. As the action progress the scheme changes. Coloured scarves are added for the Last Supper, the villains are clad in black and by the end the general populace is ambiguously clad in white choir robes even though they have been shown punching and kicking Jesus themselves. Sheader uses this last effect to give the story the general arc of a man embraced by the crowd for his promises but rejected by them when he won’t even save himself from earthly punishment.

Aaron Lavigne gives a powerful performance as Jesus though not primarily through his singing. Lavigne has a pleasant, soft-grained voice suitable for a folksinger and a strong falsetto. To reach high notes, such as in “Gethsemane” he resorts to shrieking when a full, ringing sound would be more enjoyable and intelligible. It is his acting that carried the part. In “What’s The Buzz” it’s clear that this Jesus revels in the stir he has made in the populace. Gradually, however, Lavigne shows how this pleasure turns to dismay as things do “get so out of hand” as Judas puts it. He makes Jesus’s suffering look all too real. This is the first time that I recall an actor delineating Jesus’s descent into despair so clearly.

As Judas I happened to see understudy Eric A. Lewis, who replaced James T. Justis (aka James Beeks), who had been arrested when the Superstar tour was in Milwaukee because of his alleged involvement in the January 6th insurrection. Of the three principals, Lewis gives a performance as solid musically as it is dramatically. Like Lavigne, Lewis also carefully depicts Judas’s descent into despair, although Judas begins as Jesus’s harshest critic in asserting that Jesus is starting to believe his own publicity. His descent begins after he betrays Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, here well symbolized by Judas dipping his hands into silver paint that, like Lady Macbeth’s “damned spot”, cannot be removed. Vocally Lewis is strong throughout and Sheader seems to have encouraged him, like all the other performers, to sing their own riffs on their lines. Lewis even shades his tone when he moves from the boisterously critical Judas of the beginning to the man consumed by guilt at the end.

The least successful performance of the evening is that of Jenna Rubaii as Mary Magdalene. Despite having the two best-known songs of the musical – “Everything’s All Right” and “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” –  Rubaii is completely unable to invest them with any emotion. Part of this has to do with her odd habit of singing only the accented words in a line and mumbling the rest. Not only is her singing drab but her acting is perfunctory. She comforts Jesus as if he were just one of many patients in a hospital ward.

Another low point is Paul Louis Lessard’s performance as Herod. The main difficulty of “Herod’s Song” is that its vaudeville style clashes with everything else in the musical. Some directors like Des McAnuff manage to make the sing fit in to the general dark mood of the show. Sheader, however, emphasizes its incongruity. Scutt has costumed Herod, once he casts off his oversized golden robe, as a version of Dr. Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Show. In that mode Lessard plays the part shouting rather than singing his lines which results in most of them being indecipherable.

Completely unlike Rubaii and Lessard is Tommy Sherlock as Pilate. He immediately commands the stage when he enters. His strong, dark voice paints Pilate as a much more complex character than we normally see who, as a puppet of Rome, faces a lose-lose situation no matter what he decides.

One of the vocal pleasures of the show, besides the vibrant, immaculate singing of the chorus, is the two-man act of Tyce Green and Alvin Crawford as the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. Green has a high-pitched yowl that scrapes the ceiling while Crawford has a voice of seemingly bottomless depth. Their extremes nicely reflects their characters’ own extremes.

Besides the insightful direction and design, a major positive feature of the new revival is the choreography of Drew McOnlie. People likely don’t think of Superstar as dance musical, but Sheader in giving McOnlie such a free hand makes it one. Dance is present during all orchestral interludes, all choral sections and even during exchanges between characters. This is not the typical aerobics-style choreography one sees too often in musicals, but a clearly designed choreography built from repeated shapes and gestures. In particular, McOnlie emphasizes 90º angles in posture, leg, foot and arm movements. It so happens that the same angle is prevalent in hip-hop and breakdancing so that McOnlie’s choreography looks like vibrant contemporary dance with a streetwise influence.

If the sining from Lavigne and especially Rubaii is not all it should be, Sheader’s production is eminently worth seeing, first, because it emphasizes the original intentions of the musical better than any version I have seen since the London production of 1972 and, second, because it integrates all the theatre arts of design, dance, music and acting to create such a satisfyingly unified whole. The result is a production that that makes this 50-year-old musical feel as fresh and as relevant as if it were written yesterday.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: The Last Supper in Jesus Christ Superstar with Aaron Lavigne (centre) as Jesus in white; Palm Sunday with Aaron Lavigne (centre) as Jesus in white; Aaron Lavigne as Jesus and Tommy Sherlock as Pilate; Eric A. Lewis as Judas (centre) in white; Aaron Lavigne as Jesus and Jenna Rubaii as Mary. © 2021 Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman - MurphyMade.

For tickets visit www.mirvish.com.