Saturday, July 2, 2011

Jesus As Heartthrob: Stratford Festival's Jesus Christ Superstar

 Paul Nolan as Jesus (centre). Photo by David Hou.

It’s not often I sit in the theatre, head bowed. But toward the end of director Des McAnuff’s powerful re-staging of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Stratford Festival (one of Canada's preeminent theatre companies located in Stratford, Ontario, southwest of Toronto), that’s exactly what I was doing. From that position I could see that my hands were also clasped on my lap as if in prayer. It was involuntary. I was raised Catholic – in the beleaguered Catholic enclave of Derry, Northern Ireland, no less – and so visions of Jesus hanging on the Cross move me in ways of which I’m often not aware. Faced with actor Paul Nolan suspended high above the stage, arms outstretched like the crucified Christ, instantly conjured the yearning of childhood when I used to pine for Jesus, just as the nuns taught me to do. I recalled, sitting there in the darkness of Stratford's Avon Theatre, how before I was 10, I wished for a time machine to whisk me back to Garden of Gethsemane so I could warn him to make a run for it by dawn. Jesus, in other words, was the first big love of my life, the one person I’d do anything to save for all the saving he was said to be doing of me. It’s that idea of Jesus as heartthrob that McAnuff plays up in his revival of the 1971 Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera based loosely on the Gospels’ account of the last week of Christ’s life, and it’s an idea that works miracles. This Jesus Christ Superstar is a hit. It plays at Stratford now through October.

Paul Nolan (Photo by David Hou).
McAnuff’s Jesus is a long-haired, falsetto-voiced, enigmatic bisexual-seeming rock star: early David Bowie crossed with Mötley Crüe. It’s not a far-fetched comparison: the original London cast featured in the role of Jesus Ian Gillan, lead singer of Deep Purple who went on to briefly front Black Sabbath. Judas Iscariot was played by Murray Head, most recognized as the singer of the international hit (from the musical Chess written by Rice and ABBA's Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus), “One Night in Bangkok.” Here Judas is played by Josh Young, a darkly handsome actor and singer with a gorgeously shaped and musky voice – the sound of incense burning – and a Jim Morrison swagger. This show isn’t a musical as much as a resurrected memory of rock lords past.

Maybe that’s also why I was journeying within myself while watching it.

I am old enough to remember when “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, one of several hit songs spawned by Jesus Christ Superstar, was climbing the pop charts and getting ample airplay during my pre-teen summer. I also (confession time) was once in a school production of Jesus Christ Superstar directed by Father McKinnon, a way-cool priest at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College (we girls were bused in) and starring a young Paula Wolfson as Mary Magdalene. I was 15 and in the chorus, playing variously a harlot, a palm waver and a leper. When Stratford musical director Rick Fox got those electric guitars wailing again, I was fully back in the 1970s, remembering when Jesus seemed an improbable subject for a rock opera, but proved to be an “exact fit”: The world’s first pop idol.

Nolan, by the look of him, is too young to have lived through any of this. But McAnuff directs him to play Jesus like a high-strung artiste, prone to emotional outbursts when life, in the form of pesky lepers or hip-thrusting temple whores, starts to cramp his fragile yet forceful epicene style. His shrillness grates. But also unnerving is his fish-eye stare, a look that suggests that Jesus might be as unstable as Pontius Pilate – superbly played by Brent Craver as a kind of over-tired former disco king. Says he  when trying to calm the mob calling for his crucifixion: “I see no reason - I find no evil/This man is harmless so why does he upset you?/He's just misguided - thinks he's important/But to keep you vultures happy I shall flog him.”

But throughout the production, Nolan also plays Jesus as calmly charismatic, a leader who effortlessly holds his twelve Disciples, as well as Mary Magdalene (played like a young, emotionally measured Joan Baez by Chilina Kennedy), in his hands. It’s an approach that makes for good drama. Is he or is he not the Son of God? Is he or is he not crazy? That’s the basic question posed by the piece, a tension that still drives much of the world.

Chilina Kennedy and Paul Nolan (Photo by David Hou).

While presenting the salient episodes in the last days of Christ – the Last Supper, the Betrayal, the Stations of the Cross, the Crucifixion – Jesus Christ Superstar deliberately shies away from a presentation of the Resurrection, which might have solved the dilemma about Christ being the Messiah. McAnuff himself doesn’t go there, ending his production with the Crucifixion and with commentary about the event from the New Testament appearing like clicking words on a ticker-tape, racing around Nolan’s limp body on the make-shift cross. In his program notes, he says he wants to keep the debate about Jesus’ divinity open-ended, and stresses he wasn’t directing from a Christian point of view. For him, Jesus Christ Superstar is a good story. It’s a compelling play as well as a musical with chart-climbing tunes. Lisa Shriver’s choreography is visceral and highly sensual, helping flesh out the all-too-human dilemma at the heart of the piece. Robert Brill’s scaffolding set design enables McAnuff to move his drama, literally, on a variety of levels. Actors cower on the ground and slither up poles. In the case of Young’s Judas (a most tortured victim of fate) they even hang him from the rafters at the end of a rope. Paul Tazewell's boho chic costume design incorporating large hooded wraps contemporizes the action while rooting it also in Biblical times. Howell Binkley's lighting design, meanwhile, is both subtle and full voltage a bit like the Jesus story itself. Other standouts include Mike Nadajewski as Peter and Marcus Nance as Caiaphas, the latter portrayed as a dark and brooding character with a deep bass voice, the perfect foil to Nolan’s high-pitched, translucent Christ.

There’s no denying this kind of imagery draws on iconography familiar to all Christians, iconography with a built-in emotional factor. It resonates with the audience on a deep, emotional and cultural level, whether they’re believers or not. I saw two women in the row in front of me giggle and roll their eyes at the Crucifixion scene, making me realize that, yes, the Jesus story, as told by McAnuff does often veer dangerously close to kitsch. But I think that’s deliberate, a kind of post-modern response to the Greatest Story Ever Told. How else to interpret his absolutely over-the-top Herod scene, featuring a Vegas-style light show, prostitutes of every flavour and a deliciously camp Bruce Dow as the heavily eye-shadowed King himself. It’s just great farce. 

And so, in the end, this is entertainment. But it’s entertainment that manages to creep deep inside you to make you think deep, ask questions, feel joy, pain and that classic theatrical experience known as catharsis. Afterwards, I felt cleansed, as if I had indeed gone back to church. I think that’s the sign of a good show. Amen to that.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information,

1 comment:

  1. I saw your article regarding this show in Stratford from last July. I took in this show on Broadway in New York in May 2012. Paul is my cousin and I had my own reasons for being emotional while sitting in the Neil Simon Theatre. I just wanted to share with you the response from people around me; New Yorkers and tourists alike were quite literally weeping, and not just emotional women. Men alike were clearly moved. I loved your commentary on this show when it was in Ontario. I hope you get to see it on Broadway while Paul plays Jesus.