The cast of the URP production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Robert Sondergaard.
The cast of the URP production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Robert Sondergaard.

In the URP production of Jesus Christ Superstar, currently rocking out at North Vancouver’s Centennial Theatre, Jesus is played by a white guy, and Judas is a woman of colour.

Before you start thinking this is some bold political statement though, it is simply part of director Richard Berg’s gender-blind casting. Along with a female Judas, Berg has cast women in the roles of Annas, Herod, Matthew, Pilate, Simon, and Thomas.

While some fans (and the religious, probably) will find issue with Berg’s choice, it takes away nothing, and in fact provides some interesting takes on a couple of these traditionally male roles. If anything, Berg could have pushed the envelope more by embracing the political, allowing for an even more modern take on this classic musical.

The third-time URP has tackled the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock musical over the years, this production (reviewed in a preview performance) may not be entirely revolutionary, but it does point to a somewhat surprisingly timeless quality of the material, and gives a strong nod to the shows origins.

Originally developed as a rock opera concept album in 1970, it would be a year later before the musical debuted on Broadway. Loosely based on the Gospel accounts of the last week of Jesus’s life, it begins with his arrival in Jerusalem and ends with his crucifixion.

Jesus Christ Superstar comes by its rock opera moniker as the show is entirely sung-through. It is essential therefore for any cast to be up to its musical challenges. Berg has cast to take advantage of the strengths of each.

As part of its gender-blind casting, Ali Watson plays Judas Iscariot in the URP production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Robert Sondergaard.
As part of its gender-blind casting, Ali Watson plays Judas Iscariot in the URP production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Robert Sondergaard.

While many may consider Jesus Christ as this musical’s main character – it is his name in the title after all – it is really Judas’s story. To carry the weight of both music and focus, it requires an actor able to command the stage. Berg found it in Ali Watson. Strong and powerful, Watson is a force, able to handle Webber’s music with ease, while finding the internal conflict driving Judas’s actions.

Nick Heffelfinger does a good job in the title role as well. One of the trickiest parts includes an ability to sing in falsetto and he nails it. Heffelfinger has charisma, but there is also a necessary hint of resignation.

Heffelfinger shares some wonderful moments with Synthia Yusuf, who plays Mary Magdalene. Herself a powerhouse, Yusuf gets to show her vocal abilities in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. Rather than a quiet introspective rendition seen in other productions, Berg goes big, placing her on the apron thrust. It is a commanding performance. Yusuf gets another moment to show-off in a wonderful “Could We Start Again Please” featuring solid harmonies with Caleb Lagayan as Peter.

Berg does the same with a couple of other numbers, hinting at this musical’s concept album roots. And even while there may be more rock and roll head banging than what may be considered safe, the effect is impressive.

Also impressive are the rest of this capable cast. Relatively small at just fourteen, other than Heffelfinger, each is required to perform in multiple roles. It is a daunting task for even the most seasoned performer, and it works here.

Other stand-outs include Isabella Halladay who is obviously having a great deal of fun in the always sexy and raucous “King Herod’s Song”. Jennifer Suratos brings her always solid voice to the role of Pilate, with a surprising feminine spin to “Pilate’s Dream” and a bold “Pilate and Christ”.

The four tormentors – Kenneth Lai, Jennifer Lynch, Emma Schellenberg, and Chantelle Ward – are inspired. Doubling as stagehands, the quartet are as practical as they are surprising, striking poses as if statues, and dance about the stage.

In knowing music must be the thing in a show like Jesus Christ Superstar, under the musical direction of Christopher King this cast shines, benefiting from Berg’s sound design. Even while there were some sound issues during this preview performance in a couple of the ensemble numbers (“The Temple” and “The Arrest”), it should be an easy fix for opening night. It is a small criticism though given the largely beautiful harmonies the cast manifests. The four piece band, under the direction of Courtenay Ennis, rocks out as hard as the actors on stage.

In keeping with the show’s vibe, lighting designer Rob Sondergaard gives us a full-on rock and roll experience. Jemma Schrauwen’s costumes are a bit of a mish-mash of styles, but they all work. Shelley Stewart Hunt and Jennifer Lynch keep things interesting with their choreography. Berg and Sondergaard provide a utilitarian set for the actors to play on, although there is little new in the use of columns and a large staircase.

While there is something nostalgic about a show which is now almost 50 years old, thanks to the talent in this production of Jesus Christ Superstar, it helps solidify its place in musical theatre history.

Jesus Christ Superstar with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed by Richard Berg. A URP presentation. On stage at Centennial Theatre (2300 Lonsdale Ave, North Vancouver) until November 5. Visit http://urp.ca for tickets and information.

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