Review: Jesus Christ Superstar

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You can always tell it is summer in Vancouver: the ubiquitous umbrella makes a rare appearance; the sun worshippers come out of hiding along English Bay beaches; and the sounds of musical theatre fills the evening air (and occasional afternoon) in Stanley Park.

The Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) season at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park has begun.  This year TUTS presents Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (reviewed below) and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun.

Sir Lloyd Webber’s rock opera opened the TUTS season on July 10th to near perfect weather, a relatively full house for a mid-week opening and a few pesky bugs – both of the insect variety and of the sound variety.

Andrew Byerlay as King Herod in the Theatre Under the Stars production of Jesus Christ Superstar.  Photo: Tim Matheson
Andrew Byerlay as King Herod in the Theatre Under the Stars production of Jesus Christ Superstar.  Photo: Tim Matheson

Shades of the Middle East are represented here with some actors in military garb toting machine guns but that is mixed with some of the more traditional costuming you would expect in the telling of the final days Jesus Christ.  It was nothing more than confusing and certainly not consistent.

Unfortunately there were very few real stand-outs among the leads but that is not surprising given the difficulty of this musical theatre genre.  Lloyd Webber and his cohort Tim Rice has created a musical that, for better or worse, requires the actors to sing like rock stars – problem is none of the leads are up to this challenge.  Compounding this problem were the various sound problems that were experienced on opening night – let’s pray that these sound problems get fixed fast as the very nature of the show requires a flawless sound to realize the show properly and the actors need all the help they can get.

Adam Charles as Judas tries but he simply cannot reach the high notes necessary to pull off this role effectively and Tamara Vishniakoff as Mary Magelene started off well but fell short through her big number.  Mat Baker as Jesus does a fine job but for a lot of the time it felt like he was aimlessly walking around the stage – many times I had to play “Where’s Jesus” (with apologies to Waldo) – this of course, is more Director Barber’s fault than Baker’s.

Some of my favourite scenes in Jesus Christ Superstar are those with Caiaphus (Stefan Winfield) and the priests.  Unfortunately Winfield simply could not get his voice low enough and still be understood.  By comparison though, Brandyn Eddy as the Priest Annas has the perfect voice for his role but because of Winfield’s inability to hit his notes the juxtaposition of the low and high that makes these scenes so compelling is simply lost.

Always a crowd favourite, the Herod (Andrew Byerlay) production number was, as expected, amusing to watch.  Byerlay and his entourage have a great deal of fun and this is one of the few places in the show where Troy McLaughlin’s choreography actually worked for me.  In contrast to this bit of fun, Doug Thomas as Pilate brought a real intensity to his numbers that were spot-on.

Musical Director Douglas Macaulay does his best with the orchestra but again, the musicians, like the actors, are simply not up to the challenges inherent in this show.  The necessary loud and in-your-face rock effect was simply lost and I’m not sure that even a better sound system would have helped here.

Undertaking any production at the Malkin Bowl has to be a challenge but attempting to undertake a difficult rock opera like Jesus Christ Superstar is even more difficult.  TUTS has to be commended for its ongoing contribution to the summer theatre season in Vancouver which can be rather dismal but it really needs to re-think its choices.  Let’s hope Annie Get Your Gun fares better (more on that later).

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