Ever since the first production in 1971, the problem of how to stage “Jesus Christ Superstar” appropriately has been a cross this hugely popular property has had to bear. Is it a rock concert, a political tract, a garish spectacle or a spiritual meditation? Each one of those approaches has been tried over the years, and none has been totally successful until now. Tough and tender, slick and stunning, sacred and profane, the new production Des McAnuff has mounted in Canada has “Broadway-bound” stamped on every electrifying minute of it.
Forty years after Tom O’Horgan first hit Broadway with his “go big or go home” version, McAnuff has managed to come up with a vision that is faithful to the original but manages to make it seem fresh to an audience in 2011.
Working with his usual design team, McAnuff frames the stage with a giant catwalk and staircases that morph into a dozen different combinations. An electronic ticker reports the news of Christ’s last seven days on earth as if it were just breaking on CNN. The costumes manage to evoke the current political climate in the Middle East without surrendering the story’s biblical roots.
The show looks great, and also has a valid emotional and narrative throughline as well. Inspired by an old TV interview given by lyricist Tim Rice, McAnuff makes the story a love triangle between Jesus (Paul Nolan), Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy) and Judas (Josh Young).
While this current production doesn’t take that concept into inappropriate areas, the director and his cast use it to provide a solid base for the story and a worthwhile hook for his actors to hold onto. Concept is most visible in Young’s Judas, who loves Jesus in ways he doesn’t understand, and finds himself obsessed to the point at which betrayal is the only option when he feels he has lost him to Mary.
Young’s intense, darkly brooding good looks are perfect for the role and, as he proved in last year’s Stratford production of “Evita,” he knows how to wail appropriately to an Andrew Lloyd Webber score.
Kennedy, who played the title role in that “Evita,” fashions takes a wonderfully low-key but intense Mary. She’s definitely the one caught in the middle, and her confusion allows her to offer thoughtful versions of all-too-familiar songs like “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Nolan’s Jesus, meanwhile, works his way with intensity through the story, looking for love from a father in heaven as well as from followers on earth.
The rest of the cast sizzles, with Brent Carver at the top of his considerable game as a Pontius Pilate whose arrogance hides his insecurity. Bruce Dow goes for a dark, satanic Herod, initially offering laughs in his show-stopping act-two Charleston, but then flinging those chuckles in our faces.
Holding the whole thing together is the musical direction of Rick Fox, providing the full range of Lloyd Webber modes, from symphonic wannabe to pop rocker to Broadway stylist.
The Canadian reviews have been the strongest any Stratford show has received in years, and audiences are eating it up. If Stratford’s 2009 “The Importance of Being Earnest” can make it big in New York (where the Roundabout’s presentation of the revival has had an extended run), then this “Superstar” ought to blow the town apart. And it could only help if this time, such a show brings along the entire original cast.