People have all sorts of opinions as to what defines an opera as compared to a musical. I think one important difference is that, in opera, the music making — i.e., the singing, conducting, and orchestral playing — is of such paramount importance that a musically excellent performance is likely to please audiences even if other production elements such as direction, sets, and costumes are problematic.
By that yardstick, Jesus Christ Superstar is definitely an opera, and the new production of this popular Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice work that has come to Broadway via the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario is highly commendable.
The main architect of the production is director Des McAnuff, whose track record has included heady highs (The Who’s Tommy, Jersey Boys) and stunning lows (Dracula, The Musical and the epically misguided 2009 revival of Guys and Dolls.) In collaboration with choreographer Lisa Shriver and scenic, costume, and lighting designers Robert Brill, Paul Tazewell, and Howell Binkley, McAnuff has come up with a production that is often distractingly busy, featuring all sorts of projections and LED screens with scrolling text spelling out the time and/or locale of each scene — “Palm Sunday,” “Gethsemane,” etc.
Two of the leads give unsatisfactory performances from an acting standpoint: Paul Nolan’s Jesus lacks charisma and is too often impassive, while Chilina Kennedy fails to convey Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus, instead seeming puzzled or perturbed throughout the proceedings. And as far as the storytelling is concerned, every good idea on McAnuff’s part is balanced by a misstep.
But, but, but….as noted above, this production is so impressive in musical terms that it deserves to be seen (and heard) by every JC Superstar fan. Both Nolan and Kennedy sing very well, however lacking their characterizations may be. In the pivotal role of Pilate, Tom Hewitt triumphs as both an actor and a singer, while Marcus Nance’s cavernous bass tones ring out impressively in Caiaphas’s music. Bravo to music director/supervisor Rick Fox for pulling it all together, and a special nod to Steve Canyon Kennedy for his sound design, which allows the music to come across as tremendously exciting without causing our eardrums to bleed.
At the critics’ performance I attended, Josh Young — the young Canadian whose performance as Judas has been much heralded — was absent due to vocal strain, and he has reportedly missed a number of shows since then. (The role of Judas is a voice killer if you don’t sing it correctly.) But if Young is out when you attend, you won’t be disappointed; his understudy, Jeremy Kushnier, sings the part intelligently yet thrillingly, and brings to it just the right mix of love, frustration, and anger. I guarantee that several of his high notes will send chills running up and down your spine. It’s a magnificent achievement, and I’m only sorry that Kushnier won’t be eligible for award nominations due to his understudy status.