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vancouverplays review


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— Production photo

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Fighting Chance Productions
Waterfront Theatre, Granville Island
Aug. 6-23

This is the final show of the 2014/15 season for Ryan Mooney’s Fighting Chance Productions, one of the companies that has led the way in turning Vancouver into a first-class venue for musical theatre. Fighting Chance will have a full season of six musicals this coming year, from Cats to a couple of premieres. JC Superstar is not the best vehicle to take them into the future.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s early ‘70s rock opera originally turned Jesus into a hippie icon of peace, love and revolution, a martyr to the cause like Martin Luther King or Che Guevara. Fighting Chance co-directors Ryan Mooney and Anna Kuman try staging a contemporary version with cellphones, Twitter feeds and cyber-bullying. But those elements don’t provide enough of a conceptual frame to give the show a significant rationale other than retelling a truncated version of the New Testament story.

The big problem with this show for me has always been the weakness of the central character. Webber and Rice’s Superstar Jesus is curiously nondescript, with not a single great song. And none of the actors I’ve seen in four stage productions plus the movie has been able to transcend the way the character is written. Hal Wesley Rogers is no exception. Rogers has some terrific moments, especially in falsetto, as when he shrieks at God, “why should I die?!” Otherwise his Jesus seems, as Mary Magdalene sings, “just a man.” And he gets little help from the directors, who haven’t encouraged his disciples to show him much love. The forty lashes he receives before his crucifixion are very powerful but the crucifixion itself falls a little flat.

Even Vanessa Merenda as Mary, who sings the show’s two best ballads, “Everything’s All Right” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” seems restrained in her Jesus-worship. Only Judas’ relation with Jesus creates any sparks. Judas is by far the best role in the show and calls for the best singer. (It’s no accident that the actors playing Judas have gotten Tony Award nominations for both Broadway productions, the actors playing Jesus none.) Ray Boulay has dynamic presence and a killer rock ‘n’ roll voice. His Judas really seems to love Jesus; and when he sings an agonized verse of  “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” after betraying Jesus, it’s crushing.

One interesting twist in this casting: both the original stage production and the movie had a white Jesus and black Judas. Here the roles are reversed, which actually makes a lot more sense of the racial politics.

The other great role in the show is campy Herod, played here with admirable restraint by Mooney himself with a bevy of dancing girls. His one scene is a showstopper. There’s some nice vocal work, too, from Sean Anthony as Pilate, Riley Qualtieri as Simon and Sara Mayer as Peter.

Nassreen Noorizadeh-Kollou’s set of steel scaffolding creates multiple levels for the large cast on the small Waterfront stage, and the two video screens are a nice touch. But they are too small for Nicole Weismiller’s images to have much effect.

And the sound mix between the four-piece offstage orchestra and the onstage singers needs serious adjustment. Webber’s mostly mediocre score should be mixed down, not allowed to drown out the actors’ voices. This is a rock opera: there is no dialogue. When we can’t hear the lyrics, as is often the case with everyone but Mary and Herod, the audience has to guess what’s going on. We know He’s going to get it in the end, but still.

Jerry Wasserman


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