Newly rock-ified and fast on its feet: Jesus Christ Superstar arrives at the Jube. A review.

Jesus Christ Superstar, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for Murphymade.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s a rush down the aisles, a veritable runners’ stampede onto the stage at the start of the Broadway Across Canada touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar that exploded into the Jube Tuesday. And it reimagines for us, in a stunningly physicalized way, a 50-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Tim Rice musical that feels newly rock-ified and fast on its runner-clad feet.

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Is the unstoppable crowd heading pellmell towards the light? the great band? the pounding rhythm of the famous opening guitar licks? In this revival, the 2017 Olivier Award-winning production from the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London, it’s the irresistible allure of celebrity-in-the-making that propels them. It’s a theme that links stardom to religious and political movements through a canon of hit musicals that includes Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Evita. 

Nowhere is that link more audaciously set forth than Jesus Christ Superstar, which started life as a single in 1970, then a concept album before it hit Broadway in 1971, and the West End and theatre immortality thereafter. It gives the story of the last seven days in Jesus’s career a showbiz rethink, through the eyes of his betrayer,  railroaded into infamy. The early controversies that surrounded this rock opera are long gone (even the Vatican relented in 1999). But what we see is the history of a rising rock star who overcomes his humble origins to achieve mega-wattage in the galaxy … by a spectacular early death, made possible by not just some Judas but the Judas. 

This revival is by no means the second, third, or 103rd coming. What gives this production directed by Timothy Sheader, its mesmerizing momentum (90 minutes goes by in a flash) is, for one thing, its stunning stagecraft and rock concert accoutrements. 

No desert scenes with the odd palm tree or hippie tickle trunks of costumes here. The cast are in runners and agelessly draped work-out sweats and leggings (set and costume designer: Tom Scutt). The stage is backed with towering multi-level metal grid-work, with windows like an eerie modern tenement (the band is visible in one or two). And it’s dominated by a raked cruciform shape and dramatic high-beam arena lighting, which bathes tableaux in light or picks out soloists from the darkness, lights up hand-held portable crosses, or glints off the metallic palm fronds the ensemble are waving, a witty reference to Bic-flicking fandom. 

Weapons are microphones. The menacing high-command brigade of Jews led by Caiaphas arrive on the raked cross with shoulder-height staffs; they flip them to become microphone stands. When Jesus is roused to anger at Judas’s dismissive treatment of Mary Magdalene, he grabs the mic from him. Judas’s own end has to do with his microphone cord, in a memorable image.

The other outstanding feature of the production is the compulsively physical choreography by Drew McOnie for a cast of 26. They are, it must be said, an ensemble of powerful singers (more about this in a sec). And incidentally, the sound, for once at the Jube, is impeccable, so you can hear Rice’s witty lyrics as well as the big rock rearrangements. But in many ways, this is Jesus Christ Superstar reinvented as a movement piece. 

You eye is drawn over and over to hands, lots of hands over eyes or pushing back. Bodies flung robotically to the side or down, jerked into cultish frenzy by forces beyond themselves. It adds up to a powerful insight into how crowds work, how groups become mobs.

The ever-louder crowd of supplicants demanding miracle cures encircles Jesus closer and closer; it’s stressful work being a superstar. With the addition of white choir smocks, the energetic acolytes of Jesus become the bloodthirsty rabble that call for his crucifixion. And blood they get, in a strikingly gruesome evocation of Jesus battered and beaten, lashed by glitter. There is a heavy price exacted for celebrity, and it’s about to be paid.  

Jesus Christ Superstar, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

Judas, “your right hand man all along,” has been on the money about this. He predicted in his opening number Heaven On Their Minds that things will end badly since Jesus has started to believe his own press, so to speak. “You started to believe the things they say of you.”

The performances are compelling. As Jesus, Jack Hopewell, an actor of delicate frame, is mild-mannered in a pop star sort of way, with a line in homilies — “save tomorrow for tomorrow/ think about today instead” — and (understandable) anxiety issues. That is, until he’s provoked to anger by the venal mob in the temple and really lets loose a high rock tenor. He’s often carrying (and sometimes playing) a guitar. 

Judas, as played by Elvie Ellis, is the more passionate figure — as a performance full of edgy, furious, exasperated angles both physical and musical, conveys eloquently. He’s being set up for the label of eternal villain, as the enabler of his friend’s superstardom ambitions, and he knows it. The money he gets for betraying Jesus sticks to his hands, indelible silver stains, an inspired image.  

Faith Jones, the possessor of a silky and lustrous voice, plays Mary Magdalene. She delivers the detachable hit I Don’t Know How To Love Him in an appealingly simple way. And then she melts back into the ensemble.

The villains are striking, especially Isaac Ryckeghem as Caiaphas, he of the rib-rattling bass voice, and Erich W Schleck as Herod, here a ruthless high-camp satyr with a major codpiece whose followers are served up as bodiless heads on golden platters. 

Jesus Christ Superstar, Broadway Across Canada. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The show’s big moment of silence, memorable because it’s the only one, comes at the Last Supper, inventively staged by Sheader. And the ending, which leaves Jesus and Judas together in a light that’s almost companionable, is the capper to an exciting and breathless production. Even if you think you know Jesus Christ Superstar, catch this one if you can. It rescues the piece from the stable where warhorses live, and sets it running again, wearing its 50 years lightly.

REVIEW

Jesus Christ Superstar

Theatre: Broadway Across Canada

Written by: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

Directed by: Timothy Scheader

Starring: Jack Hopewell, Elvie Ellis, Faith Jones, Isaac Ryckeghem, Nicholas Hambruch, Kodiak Thompson, Joshua Bess

Where: Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: ticketmaster.ca   

 

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