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LENNIE MacPHERSON: Jesus Christ Superstar is ‘emotive and athletic, frenetic and smothering’

Aaron Hastelow appears as the title character in “Jesus Christ Superstar” playing at the Homburg Theatre as part of the Confederation Center of the Arts’ Charlottetown Festival this summer.
Aaron Hastelow appears as the title character in "Jesus Christ Superstar" playing at the Homburg Theatre as part of the Confederation Centre of the Arts' Charlottetown Festival this summer.

Yes, I have returned! Back from the dead, one might say. I am here to take my comp tickets, thank you very much, and destroy… some… careers.

People spend years pouring their souls into the writing of a play. Then large teams of technicians and performers, who have trained all their lives, hole up for an intense blitz of creation, hoping to inspire. And with my 500 odd words, I intend to say "nah." If, if, IF you are lucky, I may spill a few kind word crumbs your way. For the life of me, I can't come up with an apt historical metaphor to really hammer home the importance of my resurrection as official theatre critic, but you get the idea. Anyhow.

Jesus. This show is a beast. If you choose to accept it into your heart, prepare to be completely bowled over.

The well-recognized work was composed by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber in the early ‘70s when he was in his wee twenties. It is an ambitious and absurd concept. And, in capable hands, its power still resonates today. Like the notable source material that came out a few hundred years prior, I suppose.

At its best, "Jesus Christ Superstar" should be more rock than opera, which is to say, emotional but not melodramatic. It demands the singers to sacrifice their bodies and, in particular, their vocal chords for us. On opening night, they did.

Adam Brazier, director of the Confederation Centre of the Arts, takes a talented cast and squeezes every last drop out of them. He embraces the human elements that lyricist Tim Rice focused on, and we witness these inner struggles twist and unravel within the wild spectacle of it all, the soaring chorus and hypnotic dancers. Not only is the show visually striking, but positions and movement of the players so clearly tell a story, even without context.

Linda Garneau's choreography is potent. A constant push and pull. It's emotive and athletic, frenetic and smothering. The flames from the fun, hook-filled, and unrelenting score burn hot from musical director Craig Fair's pit. Lighting designer Michael Walton nails it. In one simple scene where Judas sneaks out of the temple, a low morning light comes in from stage left and my brain just reset. Cory Sincennes drapes the cast in stunning costumes. Commoners seem to melt together into a single mass, and powerful figures stand out, gaudy and ominous.

The first miracle I recall in my life was getting a big batch of CDs from Columbia House for only a penny. In that package was the double album of "Jesus Christ Superstar." The lyrics are now part of my DNA. A first timer to the story, however, simply will not catch all the words. That's a reality of live rock music. But for anyone lost in the story, the program has simple notes to catch you up. And if you need more details, look in a hotel nightstand. But, yes, a challenge for the sound techs, to be sure. From whimpering vocals to piercing screams. Dissonant electric guitar to boopity clarinet. Boopity. I'm grateful they embrace a rock sensibility with audio levels. Just let it wash over you.

I can think of few more vocally demanding roles in theatre than Judas. This fellow, Lee Siegel, killed it. Lordy. Not only will his giant voice put you in your seat, his acting is supremely honest and in the moment.

Hometown prodigal son, Aaron Hastelow, had big sandals to fill. It was a confident call to cast him as the son of God and, like a number of the primary festival roles filled by Islanders over the last few years, it speaks well of the theatre grooming system here. With the bar set high by Siegel, it took me a few of Hastelow's numbers to see beyond his practiced musical theatre voice and hear the worldliness and rawness that the book asks. Then, as he explains to Simon softly to "understand what power is" and hits his first frustrated high note shortly thereafter, he'd tapped into where he needed to be vocally. To ask someone to be the embodiment of good and then also wear the fate of humanity on their shoulders is probably a tricky director's note. With absolutely every element of the show focused on that character, I might suggest he could even be a little more inward. I suppose that's down to taste. Do you want a stoic Jesus or a warm Jesus. Impressed, nonetheless.

Hailey Gillis as Mary Magdalene soothes us all with her singing and her presence. Greg Gale as Caiaphas and Tara Jackson as Annas are sinfully delicious to watch and listen to. Brendan Wall makes Pontius Pilate real. Cameron MacDuffee dazzles and unnerves as King Herod.

The spectacle, the energy, the power of this thing. It's an unforgiving show. It hits you in your thinker, but it affects you on a primal level.

Fact Box:

If you go

– "Jesus Christ Superstar" plays select dates at Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown until Sept. 22, 1:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.

– Tickets at www.confederationcentre.com or call the box office at 1-800-565-0278

– Thoughts? Email us at letters@theguardian.pe.ca. Please include your name and a daytime telephone number you can be reached

Lennie MacPherson is The Guardian’s theatre critic. Lennie can be reached at leonardpaulmacpherson@gmail.com

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