Electrifying, visceral and deeply emotional: this ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ aims to deliver the ‘wow factor’

“Jesus Christ Superstar” has had many lives: first a 1970 studio album, it became a hit stage show, then a film helmed by Canadian director Norman Jewison.

Many live productions — full theatrical stagings, concert versions, a live TV broadcast — followed over the subsequent 50 years, including a celebrated touring production that’s playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre this holiday season, presented by Mirvish Productions.

In recent days, the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice has taken on a new life as headline news when the actor playing the lead role of Judas in the newest production was arrested for his alleged participation in the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol; he claimed in a court hearing that he had “divine” authority.

American James Beeks (who uses the stage name James T. Justis) was charged with unlawfully entering restricted grounds and obstructing congressional proceedings, and appeared to be affiliated with the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government militia group.

At a Nov. 29 hearing, Beeks claimed that the U.S. government had no authority over him, which the judge dismissed as “gobbledygook,” eventually releasing Beeks on GPS monitoring while he awaits trial.

Beeks was arrested in Milwaukee, where the “Superstar” tour played before it moved to Toronto. Investigators found him after attending not one but two performances.

He was replaced by understudy Eric A. Lewis for the remainder of the Milwaukee run and Lewis is playing the role for the first few performances in Toronto.

Beginning Friday, Judas will be played by British actor and director Tyrone Huntley, who originated the role in the premiere run at London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, for which he won the 2016 Evening Standard Emerging Talent Award. “I saw him in the role at Regent’s Park and he was electrifying,” John Karastamatis, Mirvish’s director of sales and marketing, said of Huntley. “His addition to the cast speaks to the commitment to quality of the tour’s producers and to Toronto’s status as an important theatre city.”

But only Toronto theatregoers will get to enjoy Huntley — he was given an exception by the American Actors’ Equity Association to perform in Canada only and can’t stay on when the show returns to the U.S.

For the “Superstar” company in Toronto, the focus remains on delivering the show, which goes back to the origins of the material in the now legendary 1970 concept album.

“When that album came out, it just completely took the world by storm: this electric, really special piece of storytelling,” said choreographer Drew McOnie. So the idea for this version “was to create a visual and sonic experience of the first time you heard the recording,”

By numerous accounts, the production succeeds in its goal of delivering the album’s wow factor. The show, wrote the New York Times’ Matt Wolf, “delivers a genuinely primal jolt” and “has the feeling of an especially intense gig.”

This North American tour is spearheaded by producer Stephen Gabriel, a longtime fan of the album, who flew to London when he got word of the production there. “I was gobsmacked,” said Gabriel. “I sat in the audience and the overture started. I was like, ‘This is everything I ever thought “Jesus Christ Superstar” should be.’”

Gabriel saw in the show an opportunity to attract not only musical theatre fans but rock music lovers as well. “I approached ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ as I would ‘Led Zeppelin III’ or Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick.’ It was just a great rock album.”

The show retells the last weeks in the life of Jesus Christ from Judas’s perspective. Director Timothy Sheader’s approach to the material was to let the music lead the creativity, said McOnie. When Sheader first talked to McOnie about the show, “he said, ‘Drew, I want it to be like a rock-gig-cum-music festival,’” McOnie recalled. “‘I want it to be the study of what people do when they really believe in something … I want it to be exhausting and I want it to be full body.’”

McOnie built in “a lot of layered repetition and a lot of movements that are like a reaching gesture” into his choreography, he said. “Throughout many different religions and cultures, dance is considered to be an act that got you closer to God. A lot of those religious dance moves use a lot of repetition … Dancers exhaust themselves to a level whereby they’re able to see God.”

Rather than dancers being like swans, seeming to glide along serenely while paddling furiously under the surface, “‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is like plunging your head under and seeing the legs underneath,” said McOnie. “It’s a deeply emotional thing to watch.”

“We are really honoured to be the first big musical to reopen theatre in Toronto,” said Gabriel. “Toronto’s known for music. And if you’re a Rush fan or an Alanis Morissette fan, or any other major Canadian rockers, it is something that will hit you viscerally.”

“Jesus Christ Superstar” plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre through Jan. 2, 2022. See mirvish.com or call 1-800-461-3333 for tickets.

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