by Lynn on December 15, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Until Jan. 2, 2022.

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Directed by Timothy Sheader

Choreographed by Drew McOnie

Scenic, hair and costume design by Tom Scutt

Lighting by Lee Curran

Co-sound design by Keith Caggiano, Nick Lidster

Music direction/conductor, Shawn Gough

Cast: Alvin Crawford

Tyce Green

Tyrone Huntley

Paul Lewis Lesard

Eric Lewis

Tommy McDowell

Pepe Nufrio

Jenna Rubaii

Tommy Sherlock

And many others.

This 50th anniversary tour production of Jesus Christ Superstar, is a pulsing, driving blast of a production that is loaded with theatricality, dazzle and all the buzzy stuff that appeals to a modern audience.

The Story. In the show we see the last week of Jesus’ life as seen through the eyes of Judas and the many people who surrounded him or considered him an enemy. Judas believes that Jesus thinks he’s more important than the words he speaks. Mary says she doesn’t know how to love him but does a nice job of doing that and singing about it. Caiaphas, a Roman official, considers him dangerous and an enemy. Pilate, the Roman governor is equally dangerous and finally orders Jesus’ crucifixion. His disciples will denounce and desert him. And as we all know, it ends really badly for Jesus.

The Production. This energetic, exuberant production comes to Toronto with a new Judas (the mesmerizing Tyrone Huntley) but only for the Toronto run. (The previous actor who played Judas was arrested by the FBI because of his involvement in the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol Building.) Mr. Huntley played Judas to great acclaim in London, England in Regent’s Park and so was brought over to play the stint in Toronto).  

According to Leigh Scheps’ programme note on the show, this production of Jesus Christ Superstar is unlike any other production of the show. It pays “tribute to the musical’s original rock and roll roots….This production is heavily influenced by Superstar’s original Brown Album produced in 1970…”

In fact when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice collaborated on the show they wanted to produced a musical but couldn’t get the backing. So they created a ‘concept album’ of the show in which Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted to created a rock opera focusing on the last week of Jesus’ life. The rock opera stage musical followed in 1971. This touring version seems more a rock concert than a ‘musical’ or is that being too picky? Or if you say it’s based on an album does that mean one can’t approach it like a piece of musical theatre?

No matter, Jesus Christ Superstar is 50 years old and this production is full of all sorts of theatrical references that have informed this version so I’m going to approach it from the musical-theatre point of view.

Drew McOnie’s choreography has the chorus moving, gyrating, pulsing and flipping for the whole show. I thought of the constant swirl of choreography in Hamilton. It’s mighty impressive. I just wonder at the point of that if the dancers are over here while a character is singing over there….I guess this is when multi-tasking comes in. Something does suffer from split attention, though.

We get so many different ideas about Jesus (Pepe Nufrio) from so many different sources even before he opens his mouth, I thought that Jesus is like the Lady Bracknell of musical theatre. In Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest Lady Bracknell is described in great detail, and none too kindly by various people, so that when she does appear, the work has been done in creating her character as a difficult harridan. We just assume she is how she has been described.

With Jesus we hear all sorts of comments by those around him. When he does appear Jesus is mainly silent—He does appear with fanfare in a circle of disciples who sing-out “Jesus Christ Superstar” but there is precious little to explain the accolade. Hmmm. I guess we have to take it on faith.

Pepe Nufrio is rather laid-back as Jesus, but he’s written that way. When he does let loose later in the show. Nufrio has a strong, sure voice. The real star of Jesus Christ Superstar is in fact Judas, and Tyrone Huntley is giving a powerhouse performance. He is multi-faceted in his performance, not being a total villain, but a disciple with concerns. He has issues with the way Jesus is leading. He is passionate in his convictions and that comes out in song after song that displays a booming voice and total confidence as the character.

The whole cast is strong. Jenna Rubaii as Mary seems almost chaste and understated at first but her emotions come to the top when singing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” Alvin Crawford as Caiaphas is arresting because of his initially deep voice that then ‘lightens’ into a strong baritone. All the Roman characters are impressive standing in Lee Curran’s blazing light—they are in power and they have that arrogance. Very clever work is done with their staffs. Held one way they are staffs. Turned around they are stand up microphones.

Timothy Sheader’s direction is loaded with invention, creativity, dazzle and over-the-top symbolism. The money-lenders are covered in gold glitter. Judas throwing a rope over a beam symbolizes his suicide. The power of the Roman overseers is suggested in Roman masks. Jesus died from suffocation from being ‘crucified’ and this was chillingly realized as Pepe Nufrio gasped for breath.  

Some quibbles: the depiction of The Last Supper is positioned in such a way that the people on house centre and left see it clearly, those on house right do not.  There is a huge cross on the floor parallel to the stage, suggesting this might be used for the crucifixion. Not so. Jesus is positioned on a rather flimsy cross upstage, centre that eventually rises up, but I had to smile because in front of him, downstage, is Judas singing. As I said, quibbles.

Jesus Christ Superstar is given a compelling production. Well worth a visit to the Princess of Wales Theatre.  

David Mirvish presents, Work Light Productions, presents, the Regent’s Park Theatre, London Production:

Plays until: Jan. 2, 2022.

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

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