Jesus Christ Superstar presented by Fighting Chance Productions in association with Renegade Arts Company at the Waterfront Theatre (Granville Island), now until August 22.
Whenever a popular show, especially a smash hit, is resurrected, directors, producers, and critical viewers like myself must ask themselves, “Why this play? Why now?” When the show in question is over 40 years old, enjoys worldwide popularity as both a theatre production and a film, and is presenting one of the most pivotal moments in the Christian faith to an increasingly secular audience, this question becomes even more pertinent. Why Jesus Christ Superstar, I wondered, why now? My first exposure to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s gospel-based rock opera was during a North American revival in the 90s–my parents went off to the city to see the show and came home with the soundtrack, singing “Hosanna” in the living room and generally failing to impress seven-year-old me. Having been unable to shake my own original impression of Superstar as a fuddy old relic, and being aware that the show has, over the last four decades of popularity on stage and screen, amassed a following with deeply entrenched ideas of what it should look and sound like, I was intrigued by a relatively young company’s decision to mount such a well-known production, and one so potentially burdened with expectation.
Fortunately, Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar does not feel dated at all, nor does it make any attempt to reproduce the iconic performances of Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson (who played Jesus and Judas in the film version of the show and in the 90s Broadway revival). Rather than set the story of Jesus and Judas in 4 B.C. Jerusalem, directors Ryan Mooney and Anna Kuman have placed it in a world and time very much like our own, in a distinctly urban setting (represented by metal scaffolding) where social media, smartphones, and selfies not only exist, but help play into the “rise and fall” celebrity culture in which Jesus and Judas find themselves entangled.
I must confess I was skeptical at first when I saw the screens mounted on the scaffolding, and read about the directorial vision to include 21st-century technological trappings in the show, but it works. The presence of media in this production presents a direct challenge to Judas’ assertion (in the song “Superstar”) that “If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation/ Israel in four B.C. had no mass communication,” the assumption being that an increased ability to spread his message and have his motives understood could have saved Jesus from crucifixion. Fighting Chance’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t so sure (and neither am I)–when we look at the way celebrities of today are worshiped one day and vilified the next, stripped of their privacy, legacy and livelihood by the social media mob, do we really think a Christ-like figure would have any chance of escaping our scrutiny, caprices, and, eventually, our wrath when they fail to meet our extraordinary expectations? The result of this directorial choice gives Fighting Chance’s Superstar an authenticity that a more faithful visual reproduction would not have had and allows it to reach for what the original Jesus Christ Superstar was always meant to be–a refreshing vision of an old story, and an examination of the ways celebrity can destroy our best intentions.
And the music! It’s just SO GOOD! As a lyricist, Tim Rice’s achievement is not to be understated but Andrew Lloyd Webber is a bloody genius. In true (rock) opera form, Jesus Christ Superstar has no spoken text, but it hardly matters when the music is so electrifying and expressive–the subtle shifts into minor harmonies in otherwise joyful pieces like “Hosanna” foreshadow the fickleness of the mob and the enormity of the burden they are placing on one man. And indeed, the Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar, whatever connection he may have to his unseen god, is never more than a good man, and Judas, whatever the outcome of his decisions may have been, is never less. As our troubled world waits for the next revolution, we would do well to remind ourselves how often we destroy those who would be our saviours, and how easily they, or we, can be corrupted.
As for the performances themselves, they leave little to be desired from a vocal perspective. A colour-and-gender-blind casting process for Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar gives us Hal Wesley Rogers (an actor of colour with an incredible falsetto) in the title role, and actresses Sara Mayer and Lisa Ricketts as Peter the Apostle and the High Priest Caiaphas respectively. Lovers of the film version may take issue with Caiaphas’ low notes (heard in the film in Bob Bingham’s surreal bass) being bumped up a couple of octaves for Rickett’s menacing and sometimes shrill soprano portrayal, but for me it worked. Vocally, I thought the entire ensemble was strong (together with Rogers, Ray Boulay as Judas and Vanessa Merenda as Mary Magdalene made for a dynamic and engaging trio), but I did want to give props to three cast members with smaller roles that I thought delivered outstanding performances not only vocally but also dramatically in bringing their pieces of the story to life: Sean Anthony, required to fight his better nature in order to uphold Caesar’s law as Pontius Pilate, Riley Qualtieri as the bombastic apostle Simon, and Myles McCarthy as the deliciously sinister and slithering High Priest Annas.
As much as I enjoyed the production, I did not leave the show without regrets. The first is that the live band was not visible onstage but instead played the show from the wings. I know the scaffolding of the set took up a lot of space and that staging a singing and dancing extravaganza like Jesus Christ Superstar in a smaller theatre requires tough decisions and sacrifices, but if the show is ever remounted, I would love to see the band incorporated into the visible stage area. Live music in theatre really adds something special to a performance and I hate to see it hidden. My second complaint is an issue I have experienced in a couple of other Fighting Chance shows–audibility. Off the top of the show, the sound levels seemed a little out of whack, especially in Judas’ more instrumental numbers (with the band often drowning out Judas’ words), and there were some microphone issues in both acts. It’s frustrating as an audience member to see a performer singing the hell out of something, and be able to hear how great their voice is, but be unable to make out what they’re saying. The plot of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t exactly unfamiliar, but it would have been nice to have had a more full appreciation of Rice’s take on this ancient story. I sincerely hope that for future endeavors Fighting Chance will be able to obtain whatever resources they need to overcome these sound issues (more tech time? better mics?) because these kinds of barriers to audience enjoyment or comprehension undercut the otherwise incredible work being done on the stage.
Apart from those issues, I enjoyed myself immensely. The music has been in my head ever since the performance and it seems that despite my childhood first impressions of the musical, Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar has definitely made a convert out of me.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs until August 22 at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island. Tickets can be purchased online through Tickets Tonight.
Disclosure: I attended the opening night performance of Jesus Christ Superstar courtesy of Fighting Chance Productions.