This is Not a Review: Jesus Christ Superstar (Stratford Festival, 2011)

The second show we saw at Stratford this year was Jesus Christ Superstar at the Avon Theatre.  One of this year’s really hot tickets, from what I understand, although we didn’t know that when we bought ours, a few months ago. I was just curious to see JCS on the stage. H. went through a period in high school in which she listened to the soundtrack obsessively, so I know the songs pretty well, and I’ve seen the Norman Jewison film version…but I’ve never seen it done live.

Anyway, this production has apparently gotten rave reviews, has had its (mostly sold out) run extended, and will be remounted in New York after it closes in Stratford. Watching it yesterday afternoon, I could see why: it’s strikingly designed, tightly staged and choreographed, performed by a mostly young cast with blazing energy and lots of heart; the story is familiar and compelling, and the music is fantastic live. I had forgotten that it’s a rock opera (that started life as a concept album), and thus through-sung…basically the music grabs you up right off the top and goes full tilt to the end – even the quieter, slower moments are brief and sort of fraught, because we know what’s coming.

The band (11 piece) was really really good, and so was the sound (which has started to matter more and more to me in recent years)…and the singing was pretty much uniformly excellent, which I imagine doesn’t exactly go without saying when a classical theatre company like the Stratford Festival puts on a rock musical. I wonder if they had to go a bit farther afield than usual to find actors (especially male ones) with the rock n-roll vocal chops and stamina they needed for this…? The guys playing Judas, Simon Zealotes and Caiaphas were new to me (and, according to their bios, new or relatively new to the Festival), but interestingly, we saw Paul Nolan (Jesus) and Chilina Kennedy (Mary Magdalen) as Tony and Maria in West Side Story at Stratford two seasons ago…and they both sang beautifully in the more classical style that show requires, too, which shows some pretty impressive vocal/stylistic versatility.

The whole design definitely had a rock concert feel…the set was basically a metal grid, with a balcony running around the back of the stage, stairs coming down at the upstage corners and ladders at the front. There were also two sets of movable stairs (also metal, almost like stadium risers) that shifted position from one scene to the next, and the whole back wall was a screen. There was also a sort of ticker-tape effect where text was projected running along the lip of the balcony from one side to the other. They used this to establish the setting and the chronology of the story, which was a good idea since they didn’t have the luxury of any expository dialogue to do it: the first thing we saw was “2011” and as the overture started, the years ticked back faster and faster, stopping at at “Year 33”. Periodically through the show, things like “Monday, four days before Passover” or “In the Temple” would flash across to keep us on track.

The costumes were a sort of modern/post-apocalyptic mish-mash with period and/or ethnic accents, mostly in greys and blacks and browns, except for Judas (in loose blue pants, tunic, robes…the closest to how I imagine a Jewish man of that time and place would have dressed), Mary Magdalene (in a layered yellow dress that had long full skirts and skinny shoulder straps – I guess we needed some bare skin to signify that she’s a fallen woman? /sarcasm) and Jesus, who was pretty much always in flowing white (even when they stripped him almost naked at the end, his loincloth was white too! ;>). I wish they had cast a Jesus who looked at least a little bit Middle Eastern for a change, instead of the usual slightly-starved, esoteric-looking white guy with long hair…but I suppose that the latter is the image that’s ingrained in everyone’s mind, and certainly the contrast did make him stand out from the crowd. Apart from Judas, the rest of the followers were dressed as modern-day bohemians – cargo pants, oversized sweaters or T-shirts and vests, lots of scarves and shawls, lots of layers…all pretty scruffy, all in dark colours. One exception: in the Last Supper scene, all the apostles had coloured scarves that were reminiscent of Jewish prayer shawls – nice detail there. The priests (Caiaphas, Annas) had long Matrix-style leather coats, turbans and Orthodox-looking hair (long beards, sideburns etc.), and the Roman soldiers marched to and fro in studded black leather tunics and helmets that were vaguely period-like (except for the colour), brandishing spears that were silvery and very stylized. Pontius Pilate appeared in a luxurious-looking, extremely well-cut, fitted purple velvet suit, and King Herod was the ultimate in degenerate Roman emperor by way of Las Vegas, all red and black with tons of glitter and camp (that scene was a total show-stopper in the best way; so much fun). The members of the chorus had some fast and dramatic changes…from soldiers or ragged Christians to scantily-clad dancers and rent-boys in the Temple scene (in which the merchants and moneylenders were reimagined as dealers and prostitutes plying their trade in a goth/S&M club atmosphere)…to Herod’s gaudy, gleefully hedonistic entourage (also scantily clad, and/or sometimes in drag, with lots of sequins).

As for the story – well, I guess you can turn a concept album into a musical without needing any added dialogue or other fleshing-out, when the concept in question is one of Western civilization’s most familiar narratives. When most of your audience can see the major plot points coming a mile away, and when we all know exactly how the story ends, you have the luxury of coming at it all from a slightly different angle, changing the focus. In this case, the approach is almost entirely secular: “He’s a man…he’s just a man”, as Mary says of Jesus. As written, he seems to believe that he has a direct line to God, and that he’s following a path laid out for him by that God, whom he does call Father (but only at the very end)… but the show never offers any external proof that this is so; there’s no supernatural dimension to the story, just people – believing (or not), and facing consequences attached to their faith that turn out to be more far-reaching and more terrifying than they could have anticipated when they started.  What happens to Jesus is pretty awful, whether or not you believe he died to redeem the sins of mankind, and I thought this production did a good job of showing how he and others in his orbit (Judas and Mary, of course, but also notably Pontius Pilate and the apostle Peter) struggle with the prospect and then the reality of it. Those parts were, for me, some of the most emotionally powerful moments in the narrative.

I loved Josh Young’s Judas. He played the whole thing with his heart on his sleeve, torn between love and anger… smart, farsighted in some ways and entirely biased in others, trying to do the right thing but knowing he and his friends were caught up in something bigger than themselves, and that it couldn’t end well. He seemed to always be reaching out to both Jesus and Mary, and almost always getting deflected or rejected. He was a stand-out in a show that was full of heart-breaking, charismatic performances – no small feat.

Brent Carver as Pontius Pilate was another major highlight…he’s one of those consummate performers that has the audience in the palm of his hand from the second he steps on stage, and it’s not that he’s big or loud or particularly commanding in any physical way. It’s a more subtle draw that has to do (I think ) with experience and rock-solid technique (something that makes audiences feel safe whether they are consciously aware of it or not – I was; I felt the same way whenever Seana McKenna was on stage in Richard III), combined with that magical thing that some  people have, the thing that makes people’s eyes turn to them no matter who else is on stage. Anyway, he did a really good job of portraying Pilate as, at first, a bureaucrat who just doesn’t want to get involved, sardonic and detached and seemingly unflappable…and then, at the end when Jesus’ case is thrown back into his purview and the mob is demanding a death, it was clear that he too, was trapped, caught up in something too big for him to control, with the mob and the priests on one hand and the threat of intervention from Rome on the other, and Jesus in the middle of it all refusing to defend himself or say anything at all.  The actor doesn’t get a lot of stage time to build up to the explosion of the flogging and the crucifixion, and I think those scenes could easily come across as just hysterical anger, but in Carver’s hands the guilt and helplessness and frustration were clear and powerful.

As the one the whole show revolves around, Paul Nolan’s Jesus was…definitely compelling, but honestly kind of creepy overall: staringly intense, without much affect, like a cult leader maybe, although those guys are often described as being dangerously charming and charismatic too, and we didn’t see too much of that from him.  I wondered if we were supposed to believe that by the time the audience enters the story he’s drained to the dregs, exhausted from three years of leading this movement and ministering to so many suffering people; that he just doesn’t have it left in him to make any kind of personal connection or offer any kind of real interaction with the ones who are closest to him. Or maybe he’s so taken up with his calling, his mission from God that worldly relationships just seem trivial and meaningless to him by comparison. In any case, the end result for me as an audience member was that I found him hard to relate to or to have sympathy for, until close to the end, when at least he shows some very human fear and anger on his own behalf. But I really wanted him to respond more to Judas and Mary, show us why they loved him so much… even a few more glimpses of the friend or lover he might have been before the last days would have helped, I think.

Finally, from a staging and performance perspective I loved the last quarter or so of the show without reservation. King Herod’s scene was a showstopper in the best sense – a welcome injection of colour and humour into the gathering darkness of the plot, but Bruce Dow did a great job of turning the silly/glam/camp factor up to eleven while still not losing Herod’s degenerate Caligula-like menacing edge.

The  climactic moments (flogging, walk with the cross, crucifixion) could also easily have slid into melodrama, or alternatively been a little anti-climactic since by that point we’re back in over-familiar territory as far as the story and imagery are concerned…and, like battle scenes, these things are hard to stage in any way that is going to look “real” enough to upset a modern day audience. However, the music for that section is anything but schmaltzy; it’s angry and loud and dissonant in places, probably the least “accessible” or tuneful music Andrew Lloyd Webber has written, at least to my knowledge. And in this  case the staging was an interesting mix of stylized and realist, which I thought worked really well.

The flogging especially: they had Jesus stretched out on one of the movable stair cases, kind of on a diagonal so we could see him partly in profile but mostly from the front (through the grid of the stairs). The guy doing the flogging was the biggest actor in the cast, a large, stocky bald guy (the same one who played Simon Zealotes, which was kind of an interesting irony) who really looked the part of executioner in leather braces etc., cracking a huge long bull whip at centre stage. It writhed and cracked horribly; not actually touching Jesus, but he reacted as though it was. 39 lashes takes a long time, and with the music, and Pilate furiously shouting out the count, and the sounds that Jesus made, it was getting pretty sickeningly hard to watch by the end even though it was clear it wasn’t real. When it was over, some guards manhandled Jesus up and off the stairs and dragged him away, and as they took him we saw his naked back for the first time… and it was covered in bloody red slashes from the whip. It was fast, a glimpse of maybe three seconds, seemingly entirely organic as far the movement was concerned (not choreographed, not telegraphed in advance at all); it was the first and only real-looking effect of violence that we saw in the entire show, and after the awful-but-stylized build-up of the flogging it worked like a punch to the gut.

The crucifixion went back to the more “stagy” way of things, but with the starkness of the set and harsh white light on Jesus as he hung there, it was effective, especially because Paul Nolan did a really good job of the “why have you forgotten me?” lines. How awful it would be to get that far, thinking/hoping that it was all part of some greater plan, that you would be taken up in death and given eternal life…and then to be hanging there alone, in excruciating pain, and suddenly not sure anymore that any of it was true, that anyone at all was watching over you? Yikes.

It’s funny though: as well done as it was, I still felt pretty detached from it. I remember finding that part of Godspell really moving, but in that case I think it was because the staging had Jesus surrounded by grieving friends, and it was their anguish I could relate to. In this production, I found myself reacting with reflexive skepticism throughout the show, pretty much whenever Jesus was presented as some kind of hero, making any kind of grand entrance or highlighted in some way that was calculated to evoke awe and dazzlement. Something in me automatically goes “don’t try to convert me with spectacle, I’m not buying this” and I end up laughing or rolling my eyes at moments when I’m probably supposed to be swept up in the emotion of it all.

I should say that I think the show was purposely going over the top in those moments, treating Jesus like a superstar and drawing the audience in as a way of showing us (making us complicit in) what Judas was worried about right from the start: that the myth, the spectacle, Jesus as superstar Messiah can so easily become the only thing anyone sees or cares about; the actual man himself and the things he supposedly stood for get lost in the dazzle of celebrity.

Speaking of Judas, though, I was so glad to see him again (I love that in this show he gets to be resurrected too, in a way!), when he reappeared at the end in a shiny blue suit for the title song.  I’ve always wondered (when listening to the song) how the resurrection works in that context; in this case, towards the end, Jesus appeared as the chorus builds, walking through the upstage centre entrance in his flowing white robes, backlit through swirling fog (one of those superstar entrances I was referring to above, for sure). With him came a movable ramp that we hadn’t seen before, and as he walked downstage towards the audience, the ramp came too and kept going, extending into the house, so that Jesus ends up walking over the ends of 8 or ten rows of audience. (I can imagine the design planning meeting now, and the director and set designer saying to themselves: “movable ramp that goes out over the audience…okay. It’s going to cost more than probably most of the rest of the set pieces in the show combined, and is going to be on stage for maybe a minute…but we have to do something amazing there, so.”)

Anyway, Jesus stands there at the edge in blazing light, talking – preaching, I suppose – but the words are inaudible; Judas and the chorus and the band are drowning him out with the song. “Jesus Christ Superstar” indeed – he certainly looks the part, but in the end, his superstardom means that no one can actually hear what he’s saying.

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