Jesus Christ Superstar has moved from one of the most popular rock operas and become almost legendary. Ten years ago, the Stratford Festival marked the fortieth anniversary of the premiere of the work and this year the Princess of Wales theatre offers the 50th Anniversary Tour of the opera.
The production chosen for the tour is the 2016 staging at London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre directed by Timothy Sheader, designed by Tom Scutt and Choreographed by Drew McOnie. That production has taken off on a world tour and is making a pitstop at the Princess of Wales Theatre to huge audiences but under pandemic restrictions including the lineups for vaccinations checks.
For anyone living under a rock who may not know the story of the musical, it is about Christ’s last week on earth, call it Holy Week for Christians or Passover for Jews. We follow his arrival in Jerusalem, his trial and his crucifixion, based loosely on the Gospels. It is not suitable for fanatics who may prefer a more pious telling of the Passion.
It contains a lot of heavy-beat rock music, some beautiful melodies and dramatic dancing. Sheader has chosen to treat the production almost like a rock concert. He wants to generate energy, create excitement and rouse the audience to pitches of ecstasy as they listen to the music, hear the intense and sensational singing and watch the extraordinary events of the betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He is successful but one may complain about a few pitfalls.
A young Andrew Lloyd Webber provided the music and Tim Rice wrote the lyrics for the work. Scutt’s two-story set has the orchestra on top and the dark, foreboding and dramatically lit stage below. Lee Currant as the lighting director adds to the intensity of the performance with unremitting use of spotlights that whirl around the theatre .
But the performance at the Princess of Wales has some issues. Generally, it is the excessive volume at which the music is performed. It struck me like a performance by a favourite rock star who sings at the highest pitch that he can reach and that he holds for as long as his lung capacity will allow with the accompanying orchestra competing for volume.
Take Tyrone Huntley as Judas. (He replaced James D. Beeks in the role on November 23, 2021 when the latter was arrested for involvement in the January 6, 2021 attack on Capitol Hill). He sang the role at Regent’s Park in 2016 and is not a haphazard replacement. He has a big voice and is an agile performer physically and vocally. He performs with a microphone in his hand at times as if this were a concert and he needs to hold the audience not just with his vocal ability but by reaching the highest notes even if it approaches falsetto levels and never coming down from the peak. That is done by some of the other performers including Aaron LaVigne as Jesus.
The dancing is used for the same purpose of arousing excitement in the audience. It is wildly frenetic and at times looked more like Zumba than ballet.
There is a way of performing Jesus Christ Superstar at a less frenzied pace and letting the music and lyrics be heard. The pace maintained in this production made some of the lyrics simply incomprehensible. There are quiet moments as well. Jenna Rubaii as Mary sings “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” with beautiful resonance and there are other less frenzied scenes that do justice to the opera. Unfortunately, there is also the unpleasantness of the eardrum-shattering scenes.
Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) runs until January 2, 2022 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com/