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theatre review

An image from the Stratford Festival's Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Des McAnuff.

Lyricist Fred Ebb didn't get it exactly right in the song, New York, New York. A less rousing, but more accurate line would have been, "If you can make it there… you'll make it there."

That's something for Canadians with fragile artistic egos to remember as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's understated production of Jesus Christ Superstar opens on Broadway.

Because as much as director Des McAnuff is known as a Tony winner who, to borrow another lyric from Ebb, gives them the old razzle-dazzle, his revelatory production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's great rock musical is very Stratford, Ontario.

It is subtle rather than bombastic, and very human-sized. The voices are giant, but the acting is intimate and internal – and, if anything, has become more so since the summer.

With his hypnotic performance as Jesus, Paul Nolan remains the show's superstar – "an amazing thing – this silent king," as Pontius Pilate describes him. Of course, Nolan's hardly quiet all the time and, in fact, brings down the house when he unleashes his tortured solo, Gethsemane.

Chilina Kennedy's Mary Magdalene rarely telegraphs her emotions, either; she keeps her pain largely hidden away, maintaining a strong front for Jesus in his final days – even holding his hands as he's whipped. ("Everything's all right, yes, everything's fine," she sings, after all.) Only when he dies on the cross does she weep.

The main difference between McAnuff's production as it appeared in Stratford and now on Broadway is this: the audience.

At the performance I caught this week, you could hear the ears listening differently – perhaps expecting theatrics right from the get-go and coming up against lead performances that don't sell themselves to you, but ask you to lean in close to discover them.

The crowd only really came alive in the first act when the talented Lee Siegel hit it out of the park with his gospel-style belting of Simon Zealotes – a song where doubts are drowned out by "power and glory." (Siegel thanks "God!!!' in his program bio and that pretty much sums up his winning approach to this number.)

Another change, for the better: The Stratford Shakespeare Festival ensemble is tighter and fitter than ever. If the camera adds 10 pounds to an actor, Broadway apparently takes 10 off with its gruelling, eight-shows-a-week schedule. All of which makes Lisa Shriver's restrained choreography, with its cool nods towards hip hop, come across as even more divine than before.

At the performance I saw, there was one other crucial difference, albeit a temporary one. Josh Young, who played the role of Judas in Stratford and La Jolla, has been sidelined by illness for most of the opening week. Understudy Jeremy Kushnier, a Broadway veteran originally from Winnipeg, was in for most of the media nights.

There's no doubt that Kushnier's a pro, but the pseudo-love triangle around which McAnuff builds the production is no longer equilateral with an older, more direct Judas.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a young show – Andrew Lloyd Webber was in his early 20s when he wrote the score – and it was well served by three leads channelling the intense earnestness of youth.

Josh Young's heartthrob Judas was a wide-eyed zealot who saw himself as the one true believer and who was only semi-conscious of his more base motivations for betrayal; Kushnier's Judas is more wretched, more clearly motivated by a curdled, unrequited love for Christ.

Strangely enough, it's Kennedy's Mary who is most overshadowed by the shifting dynamics – she ends up coming across as too enigmatic. When she sings "I don't know how to love him" with Kushnier's Judas creeping from one of Robert Brill's beautiful catwalks, it almost becomes his number.

If I got to doubting in the first act, however, I became a true believer in McAnuff's production once more after intermission.

Those who didn't see Brent Carver as Pontius Pilate won't miss him. Tom Hewitt is a worthy replacement; conflicted, if slightly less on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Bruce Dow's short routine as King Herod has improved vastly, having moved from mere comic relief to a darker, more dramatic place that's equally entertaining.

And the final scenes leading to Christ's Crucifixion are stunning, as McAnuff keeps ratcheting up the tension. The final sequence had me holding my breath so long I nearly turned as purple as the suit Paul Tazewell has designed for Pilate.

And so, Jesus Christ Superstar has made it to Broadway; now we'll find out if it makes it here.

Jesus Christ Superstar

  • Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
  • Lyrics by Tim Rice
  • Directed by Des McAnuff
  • Starring Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy
  • At the Neil Simon Theater in New York
  • 4 stars