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review

Drew McOnie’s choreography is a dominant element, a near constant swirl of movement and emphatic arm movements that are sometimes difficult to parse.Matthew Murphy/Mirvish

  • Title: Jesus Christ Superstar
  • Music by: Andrew Lloyd Webber
  • Lyrics by: Tim Rice
  • Director: Timothy Sheader
  • Actors: Tyrone Huntley, Aaron LaVigne, Jenna Rubaii
  • Company: A Work Light Productions presentation of the Regent’s Park Theatre London production, part of the Mirvish Productions season
  • Venue: Princess of Wales Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To Jan. 2, 2022

The production of Jesus Christ Superstar currently resurrecting the business of large-scale musical theatre in Toronto is certainly not lacking in buzz.

In case you missed, in the immortal Tim Rice-ism, what’s a-happenin’: The American actor who had been previously playing Judas in this tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera was arrested a week before his expected arrival in Canada, charged with obstruction of Congress for his alleged role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Tyrone Huntley, a British actor who played Judas in the 2016 production directed by Timothy Sheader in its first incarnation at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London, has since been flown in to take over for the Toronto stint.

It was a coup (too soon?) to land the Olivier-nominated triple threat: Huntley didn’t seem rusty at all in the role at the Sunday matinee critics were invited to review, despite being just four performances back into it. Indeed, he quickly asserted himself as the superstar of the show.

Rocking a retro high-top hairdo, Huntley shows himself most capable of the cast of truly acting all of the angst in the prog-rock extravaganza while simultaneously impressing with a voice that ranges comfortably from hard rock to R&B.

By contrast, the other lead performers had lovely voices but trouble not letting their characterizations get washed away in this 50th anniversary production that prioritizes the sound of the band and the choreography of the chorus.

This tour was originally supposed to arrive in Toronto a half-century after Lloyd Webber’s original “brown” concept album was released in 1970 and became a hit, but is now here 50 years after the original Broadway production in 1971.

The former anniversary is the one being celebrated. Unusually for a touring production, most of the band is travelling with the show, picking up local players only for the string section.

The musicians, directed by Shawn Gough on keyboard, are visible throughout the show, sitting on the second floor of designer Tom Scutt’s steel-beam set – which has a giant cross-shaped catwalk at its centre.

They rock their way through the score trying to recreate the sound of that cult 1970 recording as closely as possible.

Sheader’s staging, meanwhile, frames the show primarily as a concert. Handheld microphones are passed between Judas, Jesus (Aaron LaVigne) and Mary (Jenna Rubaii) during their solos – and microphone stands are the primary props, even enlisted to help in the convincingly depicted crucifixion at the end.

There’s something quixotic in this production’s attempt to capture the sound of a particular moment in musical history, yet provide more up-to-date Gen Y/Z visuals and vocals.Matthew Murphy/Mirvish

The other dominant element is Drew McOnie’s choreography, a near constant swirl of movement and emphatic arm movements that are sometimes difficult to parse. (When the ensemble sings the word “superstar,” for instance, they might cover their eyes or do the talk-to-the-hand gesture.)

The overall effect is to make the story, allegedly the greatest ever told, seem like a tertiary consideration.

Rubaii’s Mary only suffers a bit from this – she comes and goes, but that’s not all that unusual for the underwritten part.

LaVigne’s Jesus is affected more meaningfully. Without much opportunity to act without distraction, the yoga-studio-bro styling of the character – his ponytail’s in a top knot with an undercut, and he sports the most tasteful of forearm tattoos – rises to the top and unfortunately makes it hard for this Son of God not to seem like a poseur. It certainly undermines his seriousness as spiritual leader when he tears off a tank top at a dramatic moment, only to reveal another slightly lower-cut one beneath.

When Sheader does let the ensemble of dancers take break, he almost inevitably places the leads behind microphone stands. Tommy Sherlock as Pontius Pilate has little impact singing Pilate’s Dream in this untheatrical way, though he gives the character more depth later on.

As a Judas-focused retelling of the Passion, Jesus Christ Superstar has been banned and protested for all sorts of reasons over the years, but none of them are trending at the moment – not in Toronto, anyway.

An eyebrow or two may be raised at queer coding of Paul Louis Lessard’s glam-rock, gold-caped portrayal of the nasty, sarcastic Herod – especially with glitter being Sheader’s go-to symbol for both decadence (in the scene at the temple) and violence, as when glitterbombs are thrown at Jesus during the whipping scene.

Ultimately, I think there’s something quixotic in this production’s attempt to capture the sound of a particular moment in musical history, yet provide more up-to-date Gen Y/Z visuals and vocals. It works best when the prog-rock vibe and sound aligned – like every moment Tyce Green’s Annas, an advisor to Caiaphas, was on stage channelling Geddy Lee’s squeal and twitchiness.

The bottom line is that if you’re a fan of the “brown album,” you’ll be bobbing along in your seat from the first riff in this 100-minute romp. (Yes, I bobbed.)

But if you prefer to be moved by emotions and relationships, get in a time machine and go back to see director Des McAnuff’s 2011 production for the Stratford Festival, which was superbly acted by the likes of Paul Nolan, Chilina Kennedy and the late Brent Carver.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.