By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s a diverse T-shirt and jean crowd that drifts onto the Mayfield stage at the start of Jesus Christ Superstar. There’s even a swaggering older dude in a suit who strides in, and looks slightly sinister as he checks out the scene.
Too elegant to be the roadie? The star’s manager? The producer, maybe? You’ll see: in fact, contract riders figure prominently in the story.
Anyhow, they flip open large metal touring trunks — one is marked Fragile — and pull out bits and pieces of costumes with hints of the biblical (designer: Stephanie Bahniuk) for the show, and drift away.
Since its origins as a recorded single, then a concert, then a 1971 Broadway production, the groundbreaking Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Tim Rice rock opera has arrived onstage propelled by every kind of director’s concept. Sometimes it’s a robe and sandal affair, sometimes (like the New York-bound Stratford production of 2011) a flamboyant neon apotheosis of kitsch-ianity. At the Mayfield, Kate Ryan takes her musically impressive and beautiful production back to its origins — its origins as a musical that is.
In the canon of Lloyd Webber musicals that link the idea of showbiz stardom to religion (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) or political movements (Evita), Jesus Christ Superstar remains its most audacious — with the attendant controversies to prove it (the Vatican didn’t say it was OK till 1999). It re-casts a famous story, with a famous hero, as the history of a rising star who, like many in the rock star field, emerges from humble origins, and rockets to superstar immortality by an early death (and a spectacular resurrection and revival tour).
It’s a theatrical tale about charisma and the high cost of celebrity, told entirely in song. And this compelling production references a time-honoured theatrical motif to match: the costume trunk, the divvying up of parts, the gradual emergence of characters from the 18-member ensemble. Individuals return from time to time to to group tableaux artfully arranged by Ryan and lit, with a painterly glow, by Leigh Ann Vardy.
The striking set, by the highly original designer T. Erin Gruber, conjures a derelict church: stained glass window, timbers askew in projections that hint at scaffolding, crumbling walls ensnared by branches from a spreading tree of life that is the production’s visual centrepiece. As events hurtle to fatality, her projections, which play on banners and around around the tarnished enamelled surfaces of the space, will survey Christian iconography, and along with Vardy’s stunning lighting effects, hint at supernatural interventions.
The band led by musical director/arranger Van Wilmott is up in a sort of dim choir loft, where he, along with guitarist Harley Symington and an excellent band play the devil’s music, devilishly well.
Jesus gets the billing. But at the heart of the enterprise is Jesus’s angry, baffled “right-hand man” Judas and his impulse “to strip away the myth from the man,” as he puts it in his opening number Heaven On Their Minds. “You’ve started to believe/ the things they say of you,” he accuses his friend. “You’ve begun to matter more than the things you say.”
The kinetic Robert Markus translates fury and obsession into a charismatic performance as the man who’s being set up for for tragedy — railroaded into being the eternal villain by the act of betrayal without which Jesus’s superstardom will not be possible. Markus has the kind of edge and energy, both dramatically and musically, that are the raison d’être of rock. In the hell scene, Judas rocks out in white satin, with an angelic back-up trio on one side and a more worldly sequined trio on the other: he’s conflicted to the end.
And you can see how Brad Wiebe’s calm, watchful, rather morose Jesus could really get on his nerves. Especially given the latter’s preference for the company of Pamela Gordon’s touchy feely Mary Magdalene (Pamela Gordon), who can’t keep her hands off him. She pats him instantly, not just to reassure him to “try not to turn on to problems that upset you” (in one of Rice’s less successful lines) but to reassure herself he’s really there and still “just a man.”
It will not surprise you that Gordon, who has a lustrous and ample voice and stage presence to match, delivers a killer version of the detachable pop ballad Don’t Know How to Love Him.
No wonder Mary is confused. Jesus is unquestionably a mysterious figure in Jesus Christ Superstar, revealed more in his effect on others than in his own motivation. And Ryan’s production makes use of that in stagecraft. Jesus’s band of followers, who have a blithe and cheerful hippie solidarity, don’t take criticism well; they turn into a murderous rabble when the going gets tougher.
Wiebe’s Jesus is no gleaming evangelist. An air of anxiety is the keynote of the performance; he’s a baleful outsider in his own story, a man with a sense of what’s to come. It’s not exactly charisma, but it’s certainly haunted.
When Jesus lets loose in full-throttle rock fury in the temple scene, it’s a startling moment for everyone onstage, including the merchants and the Jewish high priesthood. Wiebe has considerable vocal variety at his command. And he uses it affectingly in scenes of Jesus’s doubt about his fate.
The authorities, both the Roman and the Jewish, are strikingly played. Vance Avery brings a ribcage-rattling bass baritone to bear on the high priest Caiaphas. Larry Mannell is an urbane Pontius Pilate, shocked out of his coolness by Jesus’s refusal to plead for himself, and by the crowd’s blood lust. And Corben Kushneryk is a high-camp King Herod, taunting and malicious, who arrives onstage trailing a decadent court of dancers. Laura Krewski’s choreography throughout is a clever blend of rock motifs, ‘70s allusions, flavours of the Middle East.
There is, of course, something impressively weird about watching the Last Supper at a “dinner theatre” — on Good Friday yet. But in repertoire, casting, and execution, the Mayfield, under Wilmott’s artistic directorship, has exploded conventional limitations. And this production, dramatically and musically powerful, is an exciting demonstration.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Directed by: Kate Ryan
Starring: Brad Wiebe, Robert Markus, Pamela Gordon, Vance Avery, Larry Mannell, Corben Kushneryk
Running: through June 11
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca