Fighting Chance presents “Jesus Christ Superstar”

Jesus Christ Superstar presented by Fighting Chance Productions in association with Renegade Arts Company at the Waterfront Theatre (Granville Island), now until August 22.

Photography by Tegan Verheul.

Photography: Tegan Verheul.

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.

Fighting Chance presents “Carrie the musical”

Carrie the musical presented by Fighting Chance Productions at the Jericho Arts Centre, now until October 25.

Carrie PosterPNG

Poster: Elie Berkowitz

As the tragic consequences of high school bullying continue to dominate headlines in both Canada and the U.S., the story of Carrie, the protagonist of Stephen King’s 1974 novel of the same name, seems all too current. Abused at home by her fanatically religious mother, the peculiar Carrie White finds no compassion at school, only ridicule. This could be the story of many tortured young girls across the continent, with one exception: most teenagers can’t unleash one of pop culture’s most infamous prom scenes with their minds.

When it comes to musicals, especially those adapted from well-known films or books, it would be insulting to the audience to pretend they don’t know what will happen, and to rest on the strength of the plot alone. The challenge of any theatre company producing a show like Carrie the musical is to force us to see the story with fresh eyes, while still paying homage to the original. Though I haven’t read Carrie or seen the 1976 film adaptation, the images conjured up by Stephen King and film director Brian De Palma have become so iconic that I was familiar with the major plot points before I even walked into the Jericho on Friday. Audience members entering the playing space were immediately greeted by a floor-to-ceiling white set, blank except for the word “Carrie” scrawled over and over in black crayon, a nod, I felt, to the influence this name now has on our cultural imagination.

On the whole, Fighting Chance has mounted a success (this is also the first Canadian regional production of Carrie the musical). The production is sympathetic not only to the lonely Carrie but also to her classmates at school, who may take part in her bullying but are, in some ways, subject to many of the same pressures Carrie feels and are trying to protect themselves. There are even shreds of pity to be had for villainous Teen Bitch Chris Hargensen (architect of the pig’s blood plot) and oppressive, morbidly religious Margaret White. The chorus of Chamberlain High students is strong and the teenaged characters manage to evoke feelings of excitement and nostalgia for the last days of high school, even as we know the “night [they’ll] never forget” will end in carnage.

By far the most powerful scenes in this production are those between Ranae Miller (Carrie White) and Sabrina Prada (Margaret White). Miller and White are incredibly strong performers and their duets reveal much about the warped complexities of their relationship, rife with abuse, fear, and yes, a terrible amount of love. It is in these mother-daughter scenes that much of the show’s later horror is established and maintained–their first duet, “And Eve Was Weak”, in which Mrs. White physically punishes Carrie for getting her period, is especially chilling. Carrie’s innocent desire to blossom into womanhood and her mother’s need for absolute moral control balance each scene on a knife’s edge and these roles could not have been better cast.

On the technical side, I appreciated Fighting Chance’s use of a live band (it just makes a show so much more cohesive and immediate) and director/set designer Ryan Mooney’s use of colour in the production. The white floor and walls, coupled with costuming details like Carrie’s mother’s bleached white night gown, provide a blank canvas energetically imbued with the blood we know is coming. And Carrie just wouldn’t be Carrie without the blood.

Performances of Carrie the musical will run at the Jericho Arts Centre until October 25. Tickets can be purchased online through Tickets Tonight.

Disclosure: My tickets to see Friday’s performance were provided by Fighting Chance Productions.

Ridiculously Fun: Fighting Chance Productions’ Rocky Horror Show

rocky-posterIf you’re still a “Rocky Virgin”, it might be time to pop your theatrical cherry with Fighting Chance Productions‘ season opener, the cult classic Rocky Horror Show, playing at the Jericho Arts Centre until October 26 (with “11:59 Midnight” showings October 12th, 19th, and 25th).

Fans of the 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show starring Tim Curry will know what to expect, but those who have never experienced the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter on either stage or screen are in for a bit of a shock. This show is NUTS, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense, plot-wise. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great time. Though the film was originally considered a flop, a devoted group of fans soon made The Rocky Horror Picture Show an engaging and interactive experience through the development of “official” heckles and the use of audience props.

Fighting Chance’s Rocky Horror Show embraces (and often relies) on these traditions to make the performance the fun that it is. The cast members expect to be heckled and are not surprised when the audience showers the stage in rice or playing cards (for the safety of the performers, audience members are asked NOT to bring their own props, and to instead purchase actor-friendly prop bags available at the venue for $5 if they want to throw things during the show). Not knowing any of the traditional heckles, I felt a bit left out, but after doing some internet research it seems that part of the mystique is having to attend a showing or performance of Rocky enough times in order to catch on, and since the heckling is sort of ever-evolving, it’s hard to find a definitive source anyways (the Official Fan Site for The Rocky Horror Picture Show does NOT publish a list, though it does help clarify the Rocky phenomenon). In the spirit of good fun, I do have a few tips to get you Rocky Virgins started:

  • Whenever a character says the name “Brad Major”, yell “ASSHOLE!”.
  • Whenever a character says the name “Janet Weiss”, yell “SLUT!”.
  • Whenever Brad asks a castle resident for a telephone, yell “CASTLES DON’T HAVE TELEPHONES!”
  • When Dr. Frank-N-Furter sighs, “Whatever happened to Fay Ray?”, yell “SHE WENT APESHIT!”
Erika Thompson  and Will Hopkins play a nice young couple who don't know what they're getting into. Photo credit: Devin Kerringten

Erika Thompson and Will Hopkins play a nice young couple who don’t know what they’re getting into. Photo credit: Devin Kerringten

By and large, the performances (by both the leads and the chorus members) are pretty solid. Good singing, good dancing, lots of camp and naughtiness, but one performance truly stands out: Seth Little simply dominates as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, with a voice to match his physical prowess. Every purse of his painted lips or cock of his pencilled eyebrows is both perfectly natural and right on cue. Little speaks, moves, and sings with the ease of a seasoned drag veteran (one would think he wears a corset and heels every day of his life, and who knows, maybe he does…).  I love when a performer takes a difficult role (especially such an iconic one) and makes it seem effortless; Little is a pleasure to watch. A special nod should also go to Erika Thompson for her performance as the ingenue-turned-“slut” Janet Weiss, and Steffanie Davis for her delicious portrayal of Dr. Scott.

Few opening nights are without their technical hiccups and unfortunately during Tuesday’s performance serious microphone issues left some main characters without a mic for several musical numbers (thankfully never Dr. Frank-N-Furter), and overall, I felt the musicians needed to be turned down just a bit so as not to overpower the singing. The draped walls and cavernous ceilings of the Jericho make it a difficult singing space to begin with, so even with a talented cast doing their valiant best, a lot of lyrics were lost over the course of the night. Having worked with (and attended many productions by) smaller theatre companies, I am usually pretty forgiving of technical snafus (especially on opening), however, given that tickets to the Rocky Horror Show sell for $39.25 each ($34.25 for students/seniors), the audience really should be able to expect a fairly high level of technical mastery. I sincerely hope these technical issues are just a case of “Opening Night Murphy’s Law” and will be worked out for the remainder of the run–it would be a shame if they prevented anyone from enjoying what is an otherwise outrageously pleasurable show.

Luckily for Fighting Chance (and for the audience), if any show can handle a few technical disasters it’s the Rocky Horror Show. It’s raunchy, campy, and incredibly interactive. The characters know they’re putting on a show and they can react to technical mishaps with humour and cheek. The audience is never meant to forget that they’re watching a performance so it’s not a big deal if we can see some of the strings being pulled. Technical issues aside, the Rocky Horror Show is absolutely ridiculous and is ridiculously fun to watch.

The Rocky Horror Show runs until October 26 at the Jericho Arts Centre. Tickets can be purchased online or by telephone at 604.684.2787.

Disclosure: My tickets to the Rocky Horror Show were provided by Fighting Chance Productions. The content of the review is my own.