Review: Jesus Christ Superstar (Hart House Theatre)

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Toronto’s Hart House Theatre presents the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s bombastic, over-the-top rock opera treatment of the Easter story is now a classic musical that’s regularly staged by community theatres, high school drama clubs, and regional theatres around the world. The Hart House Theatre is the latest company to mount a production in Toronto.

Written in 1970 as a concept album, the musical has shown a remarkable ability for adaptation to reflect the politics and culture of the times in its subsequent productions throughout the years. For this production, director Luke Brown draws inspiration from the youth culture and political movements of today.

If we divorce the story from its religious origins, it’s essentially about a group of young, idealistic rebels fighting for social justice in the face of a powerful establishment. The contemporary equivalent would be the Occupy Wall Street movement and similar Occupy movements around the world.

While the Occupy movement is essentially a leaderless alliance of activists fighting for various causes, suppose they did rally around a young, charismatic, Messiah-like leader. What would that situation look like? Brown appropriates the iconography of the Occupy movement and extends the metaphor throughout the show.

For the most part, I thought this concept was an effective way to make the story relatable. When the disciples set up an Occupy-style camp during “What’s the Buzz” you can instantly see they’re a group of idealistic activists fighting for political change. The cell-phone wielding, selfie-taking mob in the later scenes is a chilling and familiar image. Brown’s choice to portray the lepers as strung-out drug addicts and to style the high priests like a group of Young Republican Wall Street Finance Bros creates clever contemporary reference for these groups of people.

At other times though, the conceit breaks down; the Temple of Jerusalem scene is so densely packed with symbols; drug dealers, a man in drag, a flasher and an anti-abortion protester, it felt muddled. I also wasn’t sure what to make of the gender reversal of King Herod (played with pizzazz by Saphire Demitro). I thought it was an interesting choice I just didn’t understand why it was made but I did enjoy the campy musical number for “Herod’s Song”.

This production employs a cast of young, fresh-faced emerging musical theatre artists and recent theatre school grads who work hard to sell the material. Although I thought the ensemble performances lacked polish at times, their raw energy is infectious in the group production numbers.

Newcomer Aaron Williams plays Judas and, in the parts of the score that don’t require him to belt, his voice has a pleasing, smooth, R&B quality to it reminiscent of John Legend.

From the moment David Michael Moote emerges on stage as a contemporary Jesus-figure sporting skinny jeans and a man-bun he draws our attention and holds it. He’s able to pull off the difficult, high rock vocals for the role with panache and his is the most polished overall performance in the show. I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing more of this bright light in future productions.

Other standouts in the cast include Harold Lumilan, a firecracker of energy who steals the scene as Simon while leading the ensemble in the roof-raising production number “Simon Zealotes” and Claire Hunter as Mary Magdelene whose sweet voice elevates her numbers “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”.

On another note, the show could have used a few more tech rehearsals. On opening night the performance was marred by a host of technical issues; lighting cues were off, microphones hissed at times, came in late at others or sometimes didn’t work at all and the audio mix was disappointingly flat sounding; problems I’ve not experienced in previous Hart House productions.

Overall, I enjoyed this show. I’ve seen a few high-concept, contemporary productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and this production is one of the most successful at following through with a coherent integrated concept and presenting the show in an interesting new way. If you’re a fan of the musical Hart House Theatre’s updated take on Jesus Christ Superstar is well worth seeing.

Details:

  • Jesus Christ Superstar is playing at the Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) until January 31, 2015
  • Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 8:00PM and at 2:00PM on Saturday, January 31
  • Tickets $10.00 to $28.00
  • Tickets are available by phone 416.978.8849 or visit UofTtix.ca

Photo of Leah Sutton, Bryan Kling, David Michael Moote, Sheree Spencer, and Stephanie Schmid by Scott Gorman

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