It’s the set the audience first sees when they walk in. It sets them up for the show. When I walked into the Centennial Theatre for URP’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar (music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice), the set was reminiscent of the biblical times, complete with pillars and a set of stairs which sat in front of the band. Yet there was, right in the center of stage, a cross made out of trusses. This was going to be interesting.
The director Richard Berg stated that “[They] are really highlighting the ‘rock’ part of ‘rock opera’.” It really shows. The musical starts out with the guitar and bass players Michael Agranovich and Devon Clarke onstage, with lighting resembling that of a rock concert, with solid blocks of colour and heavy shadows of the guitarist on the translucent screen.
Also the distinction between rock musical and rock opera is interesting. Jesus Christ Superstar is always described as rock opera opposed to musical. URP’s previous production, RENT, is a rock musical. What makes these two so different? Like opera, Jesus Christ Superstar is based on a well known story. There is no need for the plot to be completely clear to the audience. This show is more about the emotions of the characters rather than what happens. Everyone already knows what happens. Because of this a lot is expected from the actors. The “gender-blind” casting is interesting, ending up with a lot of female actors taking up the traditionally masculine roles. However, it was a little straining for the ears with the lack of baritone and bass vocals. Judas is played by Ali Watson in this production, and she is exceptional. Her performance is powerful and breathtaking. Nick Heffelfinger as the title role flaunts his impressive vocals as well.
Unfortunately the sound system was extremely loud. It may have been a nod to actual rock concerts, but it was jarring and distracting.
Notable performances are the Tormentors Kenneth Lai, Emma Schellenberg, Chantelle Ward, and Jennifer Lynch. They are the literal embodiment of inner emotional conflicts such as guilt and despair, and because the emotional aspect is so emphasized in this production, they are extremely effective. They are dressed and painted as roman statues at the temple, and while they stay silent the entire time, their energy and movement is evident, even in still poses. The choreography is haunting and jarring when need be.
Overall the production was very well put together with such a small cast, and it seems like there is a certain charm about this musical that has URP come back to it again and again, holding a special place in their hearts as the very first production they’ve done back in 1995.