The LOT’s Jesus Christ Superstar, on stage in Toronto, is “energetic and visually striking”
I was introduced to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar when I was twelve years old. During the past twenty-five years, I’ve spent countless hours with the original concept album staging fantasy productions in my head. So, yeah, I come to any performance with some intense, obsessive, fan-boy baggage.
I am pleased to report that Lower Ossington Theatre got all my favourite bits right. It had me tapping my feet, beaming like an idiot and even, at times, nursing a lump in my throat.
Webber and lyricist Tim Rice have framed the biblical account of Christ’s final days as an over-the-top spectacle with a distinctly modern sensibility. The lyrics are full of explicitly anachronistic references that draw you into the story with allusions to popular culture—specifically, the popular culture of the late 60s. My guest quipped: “it’s the Bible version of Hair.”
The show lends itself to high-concept direction; the story can be applied to whichever time period or specific social/political context seems relevant or interesting. Director Alan Kinsella has set this in the here-and-now. Because you can’t completely divorce the material from its historical and religious context, there’s usually some minor awkwardness to any interpretation, but if the performances are compelling, it’ll work—and it does here.
(Although, as my guest pointed out, the cast isn’t nearly as diverse as one might expect today.)
Perhaps my favourite aspect of Superstar is its depiction of the disciples as idealistic hippies. There’s something endearing about the way these youths naively fall for their charismatic leader. This ensemble cast captures a perfectly hip and starry-eyed dynamic. They are so into each other and themselves that you just want their drunken love-in to go on forever.
As Jesus, Ephraim Ellis presents a convincing duality: gentle and soft-spoken, then fierce and defiant. And his flowing, flower-child hair is a spectacular sight.
Andrew Perry’s Judas is not as passionate as I was expecting, but he’s got a naturalistic, brooding presence that kept my attention.
Jacqueline Martin’s Mary comes as close to my Superstar-obsessed idea of perfection as anything—outside my own fevered imagination—could. She belts out my one of my favourite numbers (“I Don’t Know How to Love Him”) with a masterful blend of self-confidence and awe-struck vulnerability that sells that character.
Kit Boulter as Pilate is a refreshing bit of gender-flip casting. Her portrayal is so vibrant and sympathetic that it never occurred to me to question the choice. Why intellectualize something that just feels right?
“King Herod’s Song” is the campy highlight of the show, but it’s never been a particular favourite of mine. Danik McAfee gives it his all as the flamboyant King and the scene has some flashy and exciting choreography.
Many wonderful performances, unfortunately, were often obscured by a less-than-ideal sound mix. Individual vocals were frequently overpowered by the music. And about that music: it’s synthesized and lacks some of the harder edges that I love.
Overall, though, this is an energetic and visually striking production that satisfied at least two hardcore fans of the musical.
- Jesus Christ Superstar plays until January 17, 2015 at the Lower Ossington Theatre (100A Ossington Avenue).
- Shows run Thursday to Saturday at 7:30pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:30pm (No shows December 24 to 26)
- Tickets range from $50 to $60
- Tickets are available in person at the box office, by telephone (416.915.6747) or online
Photo of Jacqueline Martin and Ephraim Ellis by Seanna Kennedy