My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

Selfies with Jesus:
Jesus Christ Superstar 2015

by Drew Rowsome

Aaron Williams as Judas has only to sing the first phrase of opening number "Heaven On Their Minds," to elevate this production of Jesus Christ Superstar into heavenly territory. He and his voice are simply extraordinary. Williams seems to gather music and passion from the air around him, and somehow alchemize it into pitch-perfect, tonally and emotionally, gorgeous sound.

Of course Judas is, despite the title, the primo role in Jesus Christ Superstar. Fortunately this Jesus, David Michael Moote, is not to be overshadowed or upstaged. It doesn't hurt that he is one of those rare physical specimens whose divinity seems, at least visually, utterly plausible, however he is also confidently charismatic and possesses a solid set of vocal  pipes to match the ones on his arms. During the pre-crucifixion whipping, Pilates (Jeremy Hutton) grew hot under the collar with an acute case of arousal and conflicted guilt, so did most of the audience. Even when Moote's microphone cut out for his final anguished speech/vocals on the cross, he somehow communicated through sheer force of will and all remained riveted.

The pair make a formidable duo and their relationship, and conflict, create a heartbreaking subtext that crystallizes when Williams sings a brief reprise of "I Don't Know How To Love Him." In a few powerfully sung stanzas, Williams conjures a history of pain and anguish explaining his inability to express his love for Jesus. And so he settles for killing them both. It is agonizingly beautiful and "Juda's Death" is a gut punch of a number.

Though Williams and Moote have solid command of every scene they are in, they are not the only standouts. Harold Lumilan as Simon, turns his number "Simon Zealotes" into a gospel-inflected showstopper that literally stopped the show. Raucous applause and a partial ovation were the only possible response to such high-wattage strutting. Director Luke Brown implied that he cast Saphire Dimetro as Herod simply because her voice could not be ignored. Neither can her sense of humour. "Herod's Song" is radically re-interpreted, dusted with faux-Fosse choreography, and Dimetro turns the musical hall-inflected, usually a campy throwaway, number into a vicious satire studded with stunning vocals and side-splitting asides.

"Herod's Song" is probably the finest example of Brown's conceptual vision for Jesus Christ Superstar. The show draws explicit parallels between early Christianity and the Occupy Movement and by the time the ensemble is battling to take selfies in front of the bleeding, battered and newly crucified King of the Jews, our lack of basic humanity spanning 2,000 years has been capably illustrated.

There are a couple of mis-steps, with a Disneyfied group of moneylenders and thieves being driven from the temple by a Jesus who can't help but be non-plussed: using partying frat boys as symbols of evil is a clever juxtaposition but mocking a trans prostitute undercuts Claire Hunter's role as Mary to the point of tragedy. Similarly it is odd that when the apostles pair up for the evening they are carefully given a couple of same-sex combinations, but the temple terrors include - gasp! - men making out and a dominatrix and pup in leather. The three cheap shots give a dated feel to a show that is otherwise self-consciously of the moment. 

The crucifixion is realistically portrayed with Nathan Bitton as fight director, matching the exuberance of Amanda Nuttall's choreography with violence that actually hurts. The simple but versatile set provides several subtle trompe l'oeils while providing ample room for the cast of seemingly-thousands to romp. Unfortunately opening night was also marred by so many lighting miscues that it was distracting: even voices as luminous as these, can't shine when the spotlight misses them completely or a big number is plunged into Stygian blackness for lengthy periods. Similar problems marred Brown's otherwise stellar production of The Wedding Singer, let's hope it was a computer malfunction or opening night jitters, and not poltergeist activity at Hart House.

With so many extraordinary voices, it is intriguing that this interpretation tackles the score in a conflicted ways. For the most part the lyrics are treated as dialogue which gives a reality to the plot and characterization, but falls flat in the places where the Webber/Rice creative team are far from Sondheim. Yet when a production number is in full flight, the voices can't resist and occasionally launch into baroque melisima. It is a startling juxtaposition but somehow extremely satisfying. When Moote can simply sing centre-stage and be riveting; Williams can drop in R&B phrasing that turns the lyrics Shakespearean; and the ensemble creates a Spectorian wall of sound, how could anyone deny them the opportunity to cut loose and simply dazzle with the glory of their voices? The Occupy Movement may have temporarily fizzled but this homage to their aims and goals gets it 99 percent right.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs till Sat, Jan 31 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle.