10 June 2011

Jesus Christ Superstar review

(Members of the company in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photography by David Hou)

Jesus Christ Superstar

Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Des McAnuff

Avon Theatre
until October 29

(No spoilers below but still a warning: I don't talk about the shows in any detail because I believe in virginity when approaching art. Hopefully, by telling you what I like, you can figure out how to position yourself vis-a-vis my impressions and take it from there. Sorry for the vague modifiers and feel free to read this apology as a mask for lack of erudition. Either way, I still think this is for your own good.)

As a non-fan of musical theatre, I don't possess the necessary scope of knowledge nor the experience of a seasoned musicals spectator to write a review with the necessary critical acumen. This situation does not invalidate this endeavour I think since my point with this review is to tell you should believe all those extravagantly glowing and awe-struck critical reactions to the 2011 Stratford production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Critics have been promiscuous in dispensing superlatives for this show, so much so that readers might resist believing the hype. I'm here to set you straight, you with your hard earned cynicism and doubtfulness. I hope that my input as someone who doesn't like musical theatre and who likes Andrew Lloyd Webber even less might prove a useful gauge.

I would not have gone to see Jesus Christ Superstar had I not being obligated out of friendship. I was dreading it. I think I saw a few seconds of the film version on television once. I had to switch it off so irritating I found it. As we were making our way into the Avon Theatre to see Des McAnuff's version of the show, my companion who knows my feelings about musicals and Webber whispered to me, "close your eyes and think of England". 

As an audience member who had to be won, the energy on stage was probably the first thing that pulled me in. Not one hint of a grocery or to-do list ever entered flashed passed my ADHD brain. I can be deliberately reluctant (and so can you, hipster that you are) especially when my image as an artsy chic who is sooo cutting edge aesthetically is under threat. Redde Caesari quae sunt Caesaris: when faced with a convergence of such talent in conception and execution, to refuse to surrender and open up to the experience would have proved to be a form of self-injury.

The show only got better as it went along. Everyone, every aspect of the show is outstanding — costumes, sets, lighting, choreography, music, everything. Let's just say that the show is better than the sum of its parts; if you think about it, that is quite rare in live performance.

I do hope Josh Young isn't reading the reviews. He is wondrous and shouldn't be spoiled by excess of critical adulation. The part of Judas puts him at an advantage as it is by far the meatier part of the play. It allows for a range and depth rarely seen in the far too often thinly-drawn characters typical of the genre. You expect Judas to do a good job but Young connects with the audience from beginning to end. He's as stellar as an actor can be without ripping the carpet from under the rest of the show. Brilliant actor and singer. 

Pilate is potentially complex but with so little time on stage, I doubt many actors who have played the part in the past have been able to telegraph as much as Brent Carver  does in the role. Carver renders Pilate's turmoil with immediacy and quiet directness, a subtle feat in what is a crude artistic context (the musical theatre context, that is). He conveys sense of interiority to the audience while "rock" music is blasting. I could not help but be moved by his tears streaming down his face as he condemned Jesus.

I was entertained and compelled and that would have been more than enough but the show only got better. 

Jonathan Winsby does a great job in the lead role considering he was the understudy. Winsby is replacing Paul Nolan who is experiencing health problems. I saw Jonathan give a courageous performance in what was only his third performance. Some members of the public have expressed their disappointment at not seeing Nolan on stage, or so I've read. As a musical theatre neophyte, I have no idea what it is I am missing but Jonathan Winsby was especially good in the second half where he displayed Christ-like charisma and pain and feeling. 

I don't understand the politics of how such decisions are made but I understand performed in the premiere even though his voice was strained. I wish Winsby had performed. Now the "real" critics won't review his performance and that is a great shame.

Felicitations as well to Chillina Kennedy, that public and media darling on account of successful musical performances in previous Stratford seasons. Her voice and acting as disarmingly natural, she was a wonderful surprise to me.

When I got home after the show, I downloaded the motion picture soundtrack from iTunes. Now, I would like the record to reflect that I have not suddenly turned into a musical theatre nut. I simply wanted to confirm my suspicion that this Jesus Christ Superstar is a more insightful interpretation than the movie version. It is, by leaps and bounds. Kudos to Rick Fox, musical director. 

The musical theatre genre is a mystery to me for many reasons and I was always particularly intrigued by the relationship between a musical director, choreographer and director. I'm not sure what it is that McAnuff does when he directs a musical although one can logically deduct that part of his job consists in fusing different forms of expression together. He demonstrates his mastery throughout but the King Herod's Song number is an especially noteworthy example. I genuinely bow to Bruce Dow's Herod and ALL other aspects of this number — seriously, don't read about this scene in reviews, it will spoil your fun. In the end though, it is McAnuff who deserves idolisation for making this idiosyncratic scene work in the context as a sombre second half. To stage the scene as he does is a courageous move. Striking the wrong tone might have destroyed the rest of the show. The number brought down the house.

Jesus Christ Superstar has yet to make me want to see more musicals. To me, it is a genre saps meaning from story. I like to be entertained and I like to just have a  good time but, for me, that is contingent on substance. McAnuff's Jesus Christ Superstar isn't Chekov but it is extraordinary in itself. Even though I speak from a self-declared position of ignorance, I think the critical input around this show affords me the liberty to proclaim this Jesus Christ Superstar the best that musical theatre can be.

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