theatre review

by Andrew Lloyd Webber
and Tim Rice
Uncle Randy Productions
Centennial Theatre, North Vancouver
November 10-21
604-984-4484 or 604-980-7942

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera version of the last days of Jesus of Woodstock—I mean Nazareth—was a great idea back in 1971. The notion of a long-haired hippie Jesus preaching peace and love against the establishment in the rock ‘n’ roll idiom of youth rebellion, surrounded by youthful apostles and bevies of adoring groupies, suited the zeitgeist perfectly. The show was an immediate hit on Broadway, in Norman Jewison’s 1973 film version, and in zillions of productions since.

Wholesome and conventionally Christian despite its superficially radical trappings, and requiring a large cast of exuberant young performers, it’s been a natural for high schools and ambitious semi-professional companies like Uncle Randy, which specializes in high-energy, large-scale, youth-oriented shows. JC Superstar was the company’s premiere offering in 1995, directed by one of the company’s founders, Richard Berg. Now, 16 productions later, Berg is back with this handsome remount.

The vehicle itself has not worn very well. Only two songs were ever memorable: Mary Magdalene’s ballad, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and the title anthem. The rest of the score is typically formulaic Webber, and most of the music that seemed so fresh in the seventies has grown as stale as the classic rock rapidly disappearing from FM radio. It doesn’t help here that musical director Courtenay Ennis amplifies everything to come across as an unmodulated roar of sound. The other problem is Rice and Webber’s Jesus, a surprisingly uninteresting character. He’s neither “just a man,” as Mary M would have it, nor a charismatic saviour. In this production Jesse M. Cooper’s Jesus seems unusually smug in his godliness and bad wig. And with his somewhat limited vocal range, Cooper can’t overcome the intrinsically boring quality of JC’s songs. In the scene where he boots the Pharisees out of the temple, I’ve gotta say I was rooting for the Pharisees.

It’s really remarkable how much more attractive the bad guys are than the good. This is the Paradise Lost syndrome all over again—God just can’t compete theatrically with Satan. In every production I’ve seen, including the movie, Judas trumps Jesus and steals the show. He has, if not the most hummable, certainly the most exciting songs. Here, Neil Minor’s heavy-metal Judas shrieks his agony against a background of Hendrix-like electric distortion and hangs himself in a stunning scene, pursued by Furies in the form of five dancers made up to look like the marble pillars of the set. (Called Tormentors, their dynamic movements and statuesque freezes throughout the show provide very effective counterpoint to the main action.) Scott Carpenter as Pontius Pilate delivers a strong performance, too. Among the good guys only Steve Thompson’s Simon has the vocal chops to compete.

As with all Uncle Randy shows, the greatest strength of the production is its energetic ensemble pieces where the young singers and dancers really cut loose to Shelley Stewart Hunt’s vivid choreography. To choose between the dying Christ reciting Famous Lines from John 19:41, and beautiful young people flinging themselves around the stage led by Judas in the title song finale, is no contest. The real superstars in this show live in the world of the flesh.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 8:13 PM
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