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Faithful and Fresh

Review by Sean McQuaid

In the beginning, lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber created the 1970 rock opera concept album Jesus Christ Superstar. Strong album sales said: "Let there be a 1971 Broadway musical version." It was fruitful and multiplied, producing many revivals and adaptations both staged and filmed; and in its 47th year, director Adam Brazier remounted it at the Charlottetown Festival...and your rapt reviewer saw that it was good. 

Pretty darn good, actually. My decades-long affection for this show makes it hard for new productions to surprise or impress after so many versions spanning so many years; but Brazier's take, both faithful and fresh, nails most of the essential JCS elements while doing a few things differently or better than many past incarnations of this musical. 

Credible as the gentle, serene everyday Jesus, Festival veteran Aaron Hastelow excels in the story’s darker moments: furious in “The Temple”, agonizing over his impending doom in “Gethsemane” (my new all-time favourite version of that number) and viscerally anguished during his torture and crucifixion, a sequence harrowingly-yet-artfully staged by Brazier, choreographer Linda Garneau and lighting designer Michael Walton. It’s a bravura performance, emotionally moving and often vocally spectacular. 

Lee Siegel as Judas crafts many of the show’s biggest musical “wow” moments with his own powerhouse vocals, though his numbers don’t always fully connect for me emotionally, as if the imposing wall of sound he generates obscures some of his character’s subtler emotional shadings. Also an occasional factor for Siegel and others like Tara Jackson (a darkly intense Annas) is an intermittent issue with audio balance: music director Craig Fair’s deftly hard-rocking orchestra is great, but sometimes the actors’ lyrics get lost in the instrumentals. 

Most of the songs are clearly articulated, including fine versions of fan-favourites “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” featuring Mary Magdalene, played poignantly here by a sweet-voiced Hailey Gillis, whose wistfully melancholy “Could We Start Again, Please?” duet with Jacob MacInnis (a very fine Peter) is the best version of that particular musical number I’ve seen. 

Other standouts in the cast include a suitably sonorous Greg Gale as Caiaphas and a superb Cameron MacDuffee in the plum role of King Herod; his lone song is a show-stopping treat thanks to some gleefully inventive choreography, MacDuffee’s cheerfully louche performance and some vividly memorable costuming by designer Cory Sincennes, whose sparkly, bearded Herod reads like a surreal glam rock Zeus.  

Speaking of plum roles, a sunny Andrew McAllister could use a bit more edge as militant apostle Simon while Brendan Wall fares less well as Pontius Pilate, exuding imperious authority and not much else. Wall or Brazier may have been shooting for subtlety here, but what we get is a Pilate seemingly devoid of subtext whose inner conflict is only apparent once the script makes it outwardly explicit. 

There’s a lot to like in the overall production, though, such as Sincennes’ set, dominated by looming pillars and high, cell-like window frames that imprison or expose the actors depending on the moment; it’s an imposing yet versatile space and Brazier deploys his larger ensemble well within it, crafting energetic, oft-frenetic crowds whose singing, dancing, adoring/menacing presence helps keep the show moving and consistently energized. 

Thoughtful, entertaining and inventive, Jesus Christ Superstar is the best new addition to the Festival’s mainstage since 2015’s Alice Through the Looking Glass — and for Island audiences, there’s never been a better time to come to Jesus. 

—On stage at Homburg Theatre in Charlottetown to September 22, 2018. 

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