Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photography by David Hou.
Reviewed by James Karas
For its second musical, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has chosen another classic work, Jesus Christ Superstar by Tim Rice (lyrics) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (music). It is a rock opera that premiered forty years ago and has left its mark on the musical stage.
Des McAnuff, the Festival’s Artistic Director directs this robust and very well done production that received and deserves standing ovations.
Jesus Christ is written through and contains some beautiful melodies in addition to the more loud and heavy-beat rock music. McAnuff directs it economically but energetically eschewing some of the flourishes that he displays at times. Even people who are not all that keen on rock music, can enjoy this musical that retells one of the most famous stories in Christendom – the last week of the life of Jesus Christ.
The plot relates the events in Christ’s life during Passover in the Jewish calendar or Holy Week in the Christian calendar. We follow Christ from his arrival in Jerusalem to his Crucifixion.
The role of Jesus was to be sung by Paul Nolan but he became ill and had to be replaced by Jonathan Winsby (Lancelot in Camelot) who usually sings the minor role of the Apostle Phillip. He handled the role extremely well both vocally and from an acting point of view. The other major role is Judas, who in this musical criticizes Christ and the other Apostles for their views in “Heaven on their minds.” Judas, played dramatically by Josh Young will eventually betray Jesus. Judas and the Ensemble sing one of the most famous songs of the musical, “Superstar.”
“I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is the most beautiful song of the piece and it is sung with outstanding vocal splendor by Chilina Kennedy who plays Mary Magdalene.
Bruce Dow plays King Herod and sings “Herod’s Song” in which he ridicules Christ for claiming to be King of the Jews. Dow seems to have brought some of the mannerisms he used as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Brent Carver is a lithe and very effective Pontius Pilate though I could have done without thirty-eight of the “39 Lashes” that he sings with Caiaphas (Marcus Nance) and the Ensemble.
The set by Robert Brill consists of some abstract steel beams and ladders with neon lights that form a huge H for Herod as well as the lit cross on which Jesus is nailed.
The costumes by Paul Tazewell range from the suggestions of the first century to the modern without any attempt at authenticity or historical accuracy.
An outstanding production of a musical that can be enjoyed even by those who are not crazy about rock.
Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) opened on June 3 and will run until October 29, 2011 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca 1-800-567-1600