Jesus was nearly not crucified on Friday.
About 20 minutes after the curtain was scheduled to rise, director Des McAnuff climbed onto the stage at Stratford's Avon Theatre to apologize for the "gremlins" that had struck his production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Paul Nolan, who plays Jesus, had come down with a "bronchial, viral infection" that afternoon. Pumped full of drugs, however, he had heroically decided to perform anyway, despite a reduced vocal range.
What's bad luck for a cast is often good luck for a theatre critic: Now, in addition to being provided with a ready-made lede, I have the perfect excuse to convince my editors to send me back to Stratford later this summer to see McAnuff's superbly cast, ultra-energizing production a second time. I would happily have watched it over again immediately after it ended, suffering Jesus or not.
A retelling of the final week in the life of Jesus Christ that stresses his humanity over his divinity, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera began life as a hit 1970 concept album. Its history as a stage production has been less than illustrious, though it has the supremely ironic honour of having being banned for both religious reasons (in South Africa) and atheistic ones (in the USSR).
Taking his cue from a comment made by Rice in an interview, McAnuff has sussed out a way to make Jesus Christ Superstar a coherent and compelling piece of drama while not stinting on the concert-style spectacular.
Filling in space beneath the surface of the lyrics with meaningful mime, he's carved out a "love triangle" between Josh Young's self-righteous, sexually ambiguous and entirely seductive Judas; Chilina Kennedy's sincere and yearning Mary Magdalene; and Paul Nolan's enigmatic, but magnetic Jesus, who inspires both devotion and bafflement among his followers by playing hard-to-get.
These three are equilaterally fantastic, even with an under-the-weather lead. Though Nolan's singing may have occasionally conjured up Neil Diamond at the opening, his behind-the-scene struggle fittingly fuelled his character's suffering in the second act. When, up on the cross, his Jesus said he was thirsty, it was as moving as it is in the Bible.
As for the supporting cast, it is to die for (your sins?). Brent Carver is wrenching as a purple-suited Pontius Pilate, desperately seeking a way to avoid crucifying Christ, before finally acquiescing to his part in a larger plan. A sinister, Adam Lambert-styled Bruce Dow kills it in King Herod's song, complete with a skillfully faked turn at a grand piano, while there are strong, sensationally sung performances from Aaron Walpole's Annas, Lee Siegel's Simon Zealotes and Marcus Nance's basso profundo Caiaphas.
On the level of production, it all comes together thrillingly, set designer Robert Brill finding a fresh approach to the catwalks and rolling risers that serve as backdrop for Sean Nieuwenhuis's vivid and seamlessly integrated video projections. (An electronic ticker that counts down to the day to Passover and helpfully fills in the historical blanks in this dialogue-free show is a brilliant idea.)
Lisa Shriver's choreography is Shakespearean and is somehow seeming both timeless and of its time, while Paul Tazewell's costumes have a Middle Eastern meets Battlestar Galactica feel that sounds silly but looks great. McAnuff has assembled the right team for the job, and this is by far the most divinely inspired work I've seen from him here or elsewhere.
Jesus Christ Superstar
- Lyrics by Tim Rice
- Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
- Directed by Des McAnuff
- Starring Josh Young, Paul Nolan, Chilina Kennedy
- At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont.
Jesus Christ Superstar continues at Stratford through Oct. 29.