The In-Person Toronto Experience: Work Light/Regent’s Park’s Jesus Christ Superstar – 50th Anniversary Tour
Jesus Christ Superstar, the big rock musical that defies explanation (just try explaining and convincing someone who has never heard of it before of this show’s Rock Starry magnificence. It ain’t easy!), made its 50th Anniversary tour way onto Mirvish’s Princess Of Wales Theatre‘s beautiful wide stage. I was thrilled, especially because I was seeing it with one of my oldest friends, the one that I probably discovered (or embraced) the glorious concept album with, listening to it over and over again for most of my Toronto university years in that wonderful Vaughan Road apartment we shared so many many years ago. That album, as well as Evita, Phantom, and Cats…yes, I must admit it, Cats.
Back in the day, we were obsessed with that 1970 concert album and the subsequent 1973 film directed by Norman Jewison, hypnotized and fascinated by the soaring vocals and heighten dramatic flair of this tale. Well, at least I was. It was heavenly and unearthly, but not a story I knew well. Truth be told, all my religious upbringing and teaching around the story of Jesus and his crucifixion was basically encapsulated within that record sleeve (for those of you who remember records and the sleeves they come protected in). The story that this particular musical told was really my only guide. Not the greatest (nor the worst) teacher to be enlightened by, but in my upbringing, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were the ones I had at my disposal, and for that, I am eternally thankful. Amen.
The present-day tour, formulated around the acclaimed Regent’s Park Theatre London outdoor staging by Work Light Productions, was and is an unstoppable experience driving the music forward with a powerful rock stance, thanks to music supervisor Tom Deering (Regent’s Park’s Little Shop of Horrors). Literally. For good and/or bad, the show has taken its name very seriously, maybe even too much, embracing all of the core values of the 1970 studio album and broadening it for the wide stage like a high voltage rockstar show. Tightening the piece to a one-act rock fest, the production flies forward with a vengeance, capitalizing on the intense soaring guitar sounds and heightening the energy all around. It spotlights the superstar aspects, giving center stage to the idolatry of the lead rock star dynamic. It’s a shame the overall effect isn’t as satisfying as it could or should have been. Even with all that misplaced glitter, – I don’t get, in any way, shape, or form, the throwing of glitter during the flogging – it seems so terribly disrespectful and minimalizing something that should be tense and horrendously upsetting. I just couldn’t understand it…. – this production doesn’t actually enliven the overall event, even with all that kinetic activity on stage, but ultimately leaves us wanting much more of an emotional punch and a deeper sense of connection.
The music, by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, alongside the deft lyrics of Tim Rice, is as exciting as always, finding fire in the rifts and energy in the dynamics that drive the well-known religious story forward to its inevitable end. I must admit that I was truly eager to see the iconic stage musical live. It has been a long time coming, ever since the imperfect but dynamic Stratford Festival Broadway transfer in 2012. I had just recently watched with glee the show on the small screen last year, streaming the “Live in Concert” production by NBC, and was equally thrilled that same holiday weekend to be given the opportunity to watch the 2012 O2 staged version from the UK courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Shows Must Go On YouTube channel. Both were completely exhilarating and satisfying to this JCS junkie in their own particular ways and means. Neither were perfect, although the O2 production came pretty darn close. I was hoping, to be honest, that when I was asked if I wanted a ticket for this touring production, that the show was based on that O2 production, but when I learned it was not, I wasn’t discouraged. After some online research, I was quite content to learn that the show was coming from an acclaimed and award-winning Regents Park revival (Evening Standard Award winner, Best Musical; Olivier Award winner, Best Musical Revival). So we four entered that lovely Toronto theatre with high hopes, ready to be thrilled and moved. And we were, but not as wildly as I had hoped.
The energy of this JCS is dynamic, I will give it that. Especially in the first third of the production, when it stomps forward with a wild abandonment, thanks to the energetic choreography by Drew McOnie (Broadway’s King Kong). The lead dancer center stage draws us in, and plants us solidly within the conflicts of the story. It’s clear that this production is not trying to re-create the acclaimed feel of the movie, but, as directed by Timothy Sheader (Regent’s Park’s Into the Wood), this Jesus Christ Superstar is standing tall in a rock star spotlight. It sings with force at a microphone stand, demanding our attention as if we truly are at an arena rock concert, much like the Alanis Morissette concert I saw at Radio City years ago. It’s a strong wide-legged Superstar stance, initially and at certain moments throughout, but unfortunately for the show and for us, that’s about all this production has in its creative arsenal.
The choreography starts to melt into one another, feeling completely repetitive and tiresome by the end. This is particularly true when it comes to that lead dancer who really started to get on my nerves as she kept taking center stage and doing the same thing over and over again. It felt like we were watching her in a strange loop, as if she was an annoying tweaked-out groupie at the same Alanis concert dancing and dancing in the aisle, unable to realize she was blocking the view of the stage for all the others in attendance. Living her hallucination all inside her head, I just wanted to tell her to stop, and sit down. It seems that the director and the choreographer didn’t have much else to offer up. No shifts in tone for different characters or situations, bringing down the high priests to a level of ridiculousness with every hip-thrusting formulation. The power dynamics were off, and the subtleties gave way to the bigger concept, leaving us getting more and more bored by the repetitive visuals which, to be honest, started out so uplifting.
The same can be said of the lead singers and performers, it pains me to say. Each and everyone started out strong, singing intensely and very movingly into their ever exchanging microphones. It gave me high hopes to see where this was going within the Rock Superstar concept, only to find myself disappointed and antsy that we were already given everything they had to give before the first half was even over.
I actually didn’t get to see the heavily promoted lead, Aaron LaVigne the night I went, but rather caught the understudy, Pepe Nufrio (Madrid’s El Primer Dia de Nuestras Vidas). The very handsome young actor took on the role of Jesus, which unfortunately for us was a big shame. He definitely wasn’t up to the task, as I hear LaVigne is. Nufrio certainly has a very powerful full-range voice, hitting all the high notes with clarity and a rock star vision, especially in the first half. But his acting and his personality choices started to fall flat. It was an odd experience, to find yourself thinking of Jesus as an unlikeable, pompous poser strutting around oblivious of those around him. He was truly playing the part as if he was a rock star, which I get, but his narcissistic connection to the other actors and the characters they were playing was pretty non-existence, and his engagement to the audience boarded on arrogance or just plain nonchalance. I blame inexperience, or maybe the director’s vision.
On the other hand, Judas, portrayed strongly by Tyrone Huntley ([title of show]) was about the best thing the show had to offer, pulling us in with his soaring vocals and non-stop energy. Once again, he proved that the part is really the center of this musical. The odd thing was that Huntley is himself a replacement as the previous Judas was charged and in trouble with the U.S. authorities for his involvement in the January 6 uprising in D.C. and not allowed to leave the country. Huntley swooped in for the Canadian dates, hitting all the right notes, and delivering the heart of the show with aplomb. Jenna Rubaii (Broadway’s Groundhog Day) as Mary, on the other hand, started out strong with lovely caressing vocals, but quickly de-evolved into something quite flat and unremarkable. She sang the core song of Mary’s well, but it was void of any tender emotion or connection. I think I even spaced out a bit, dreaming of Mel C, who found a detailed loving engagement within her streetwise Mary Magdalene in the O2 production. [Check out her “Everythings Alright” and be grateful for the gift of former Spice Girl, Mel C. and her dynamic costars.]
The mic drop of Tommy Sherlock (West End’s Wicked) as Pilate is a fun inventive touch that added to his strong performance and the modernized edge of rock stardom portrayed here. But the rest of the characters, including Caiaphas as portrayed by Alvin Crawford (Broadway’s The Lion King); Tyce Green as Annas; Eric A. Lewis as Simon; Paul Louis Lessard as Herod; Tommy McDowell as Peter; were never really given the formulations to make a strong unique statement for themselves, other than background players to the lead. Ultimately, this touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar is a one-concept wonder, with a pretty impressive set up by scenic, hair, and costume design Tom Scutt (Broadway’s King Charles III) that faltered in the final round becoming too flimsy for the moment. What was up with that make shift little cross? No amount of fancy lighting within the impressive lighting design by Lee Curran (Broadway’s Constellations) could heighten that moment. With a high voltage sound design by Keith Caggiano & Nick Lidster, the show ultimately lacked the emotional engagement to revitalize the love and excitement within. It’s sung very well, but without internalized energy or heart. And without that tender connection, it’s just a loud rock concert of a concept album, played without meaning or engagement. Better to stay home and stream.