May I be frank? I'm getting just a teensy bit sick of celebrating Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday. Since the American composer-lyricist entered his ninth decade of existence last March 22, it feels like every week there's been a concert or talk exalting his genius. His actual birth, from conception to delivery room, was less drawn out. Enough already.
Andrew Lloyd Webber also had a birthday on March 22 - yes, in a strange quirk of fate, Sondheim and the anti-Sondheim were born on the same day - but, as far as I can tell, all the British composer got was a cake that he ate while reading the critics' dismissive notices for his Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies.
Perhaps it's time to show Lloyd Webber some love? Somehow a narrative has been created that "everyone" loves the brilliance of Sondheim, while "no one" can stand schmaltzy Lloyd Webber, when in fact the opposite is closer to the truth. Heck, Starlight Express ran longer on Broadway than any musical Sondheim has composed. Love Never Dies, that supposed failure, is still on the West End; Sondheim's last show, Road Show, played two months off-Broadway.
In fact, there is a low-key Lloyd Webber reconsideration under way. There have been a couple of stripped-down productions of his musicals in the UK lately, while the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has of late been making the case that his work deserves a place even at a classical theatre festival.
The pleasant oddity that is Peaches Christ Superstar can be considered as part of this rehabilitation Lloyd Webber's artistic and critical credibility. In it, accompanied by Chilly Gonzales on the piano, Peaches - the sexually obscene, electro-rap alter-ego of Toronto-born Merrill Nisker - performs the entirety of the 1970 rock opera the young Lloyd Webber wrote with Tim Rice about the last days of Jesus Christ. She brought this one-woman show to Toronto's Queen Elizabeth Theatre last night and it was a dynamite juxtaposition.
Usually, when a musician with critical cachet performs the music of one with mere commercial popularity, it takes the form of an ironic cover that is often just veiled genuine admiration. But Peaches has skipped this irony: She's adored Jesus Christ Superstar since she was a teenager and, rather than putting it away as a childish thing, she's decided to embrace her love for it.
The last time I saw Peaches perform, she was pushed onstage in a wheelchair by naked transsexual. Here, she was first revealed in a spotlight like a classy cabaret singer - albeit, one dressed in a tight, white, brutally honest unitard with a popped, plush Elizabeth-style collar. After Gonzalez made his way through a cleverly stripped-down overture, Peaches broke into a rocking rendition of Judas's opening song: Heaven on Their Minds.
With her split personality haircut - long strands of bleached hair hang down the left side of her head, while the right is shaved to the skull - Peaches looks like she has a split personality, so it wasn't at all out-of-place for her to channel the rock opera's entire cast of characters - Jesus, Judas and Mary and on to Caiaphas, Pilate and King Herod.
Keeping physically still for the most part, her arms often glued to her side, Peaches didn't act the show out, just sang the songs in an emotionally invested manner. In Everything's Alright, she slipped to the ground during Mary's part, stood to sing Judas's lines and knelt when she was Jesus, but the characters always looked straight out at the audience. I'm not sure anyone who doesn't know the rock opera would necessarily have followed every strand of the plot, but then I'm not sure that was the point.
Peaches's voice explodes with soulful power when singing the male characters' songs. Her Jesus and Judas can be difficult to distinguish, but there's something resonant in that - we are all our own betrayers. The higher voice she uses for Mary isn't as technically polished, but she nevertheless delivers a touching emotional vulnerability in songs like I Don't Know How to Love Him.
After intermission, Peaches returned onstage in giant, puffy gold jacket, black, downward-pointing eyebrows pencilled in above her eyes, with her hair standing up like a rooster. (She looked a bit like a yellow Angry Birds mascot.)
The second act was much more theatrical. Peaches did the splits during the ragtime-inflected King Herod's Song. "Prove to me that you're no fool; walk across my swimming pool," she sang mockingly, while performing a moonwalk. Later, during Jesus's 39 lashes, she wielded a whip - her sole prop of the night. In this moment, we see that the gap between her usual sadomasochistic stage show and what Lloyd Webber and Rice did with Jesus Christ Superstar is not nearly as large as thought.
Nearly as interesting to me as the performance was watching the behaviour of audience members uncertain if they would be playing the role of raucous rock fans or tamed theatre goers for the night. Is it all right to sing along and take pictures on a cellphone? Will there be an intermission? Can we ask for an encore? The constructed nature of both types of social etiquette was clearly illuminated as the boundaries between them blurred.
Playing with this pleasing confusion in the crowd, Peaches had a number of plants in the front row (including Gentleman Reg) who began to shake their fists and shout the "Cru-ci-fy him! Cru-ci-fy him!" part during the Trial Before Pilate. At first, I thought perhaps they were just rabid Jesus Christ Superstar fans, as there had been a fair bit of unscripted singing or humming along going on earlier during the better-known tunes.
But soon enough, they leapt up on stage for the crucifixion sequence, dancing in various array of hipster clothing that didn't look all that different from what the cast wore in Norman Jewison's 1973 film of the musical. The crowd lifted Peaches up and, instead of being nailed to a cross, she was transformed into one - like a giant, golden singing candle on a re-birthday cake. Happy resurrection, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Peaches Christ Superstar
- Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
- Lyrics by Tim Rice
- Starring Peaches and Chilly Gonzales
- At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto