The accolades continue to pour in for Des McAnuff’s triumphal production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Its composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and its librettist, Tim Rice, have made the trek to the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theatre to take in performances. A transfer has been announced to McAnuff’s former stomping grounds at the La Jolla Playhouse, and rumours of a Broadway production are reaching a fever pitch.
McAnuff unlocks the piece’s problematic dramaturgy with a brilliant but obvious choice: he uses projections that provide a day-by-day countdown to the Crucifixion. This tactic does wonders to clarify the timeline and heighten the drama. McAnuff’s second stroke of genius is to set the Biblical drama against a love triangle among his three leads: Judas, played by the sultry Josh Young; Mary Magdalene, played by the glorious Chilina Kennedy; and the preternaturally beautiful Paul Nolan as the titular Nazarene. The principals are uniformly excellent, but it is the supporting players and the ensemble who truly carry the day. Of particular note here are Bruce Dow’s Herod, who is at once hilarious, savage and transgressively camp, and Brent Carver’s Pontius Pilate, who, in glorious purple velour, exists somewhere between Quentin Crisp and Nicolae Ceausescu. Also noteworthy are the lithe physicality of Jason Sermonia, the gospel pipes of Katrina Reynolds and the fluid sexuality of Kyle Golemba.
As in any McAnuff production, a sense of brash theatricality and brazen sexuality permeates the proceedings. McAnuff applies a glam-rock sensibility to his kinetic staging, artfully choreographing set designer Robert Brill’s rolling star cases to create a multitude of environments. The pacing is pitch-perfect, with the first act seeming to flash by in an instant. For all the spectacle, the piece is by no means an empty exercise in excess. McAnuff and his triangle of lovers find the beating heart at the centre of the story. Providing an emotional anchor for the piece solves an issue that has plagued many Jesus Christ Superstar revivals: what seemed a provocative-cum-blasphemous commentary on the life of Christ when the show first premiered on Broadway in 1971 has lost much of its sting in light of explosive anti-clerical polemics by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But McAnuff’s production never loses itself in the self-importance of toothless satire.
The latently heterosexual McAnuff gets away with some potentially problematic scenes. Jesus’ ousting of the money lenders from the temple is imagined by McAnuff as a den of iniquity, complete with writhing Romanesque go-go boys. Because the director puts forward no simplistic moral judgment on Jesus, this sequence of the good shepherd casting out the wicked queers comes off as both a commentary on religious homophobia and – by way of McAnuff’s prodigious Ziggy Stardust sense of camp – transgression revelling in taboo… and a sexy example, at that.
McAnuff announced recently that he will end his tenure as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival following the 2013 season. Let us hope that whoever takes up the position will maintain a modicum of the rock-and-roll spirit he injected into the hallowed Canadian institution.