Hal Wesley Rogers as Jesus and Vanessa Merenda as Mary Magdalene in the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar
Hal Wesley Rogers as Jesus and Vanessa Merenda as Mary Magdalene in the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar

There are some really nice performances in the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar, but they sometimes get lost inside unnecessary distractions.

In our recent interview with the show’s co-director Ryan Mooney, he said that his prolific community theatre group hasn’t previously tackled Jesus Christ Superstar because he didn’t have the right cast or the right concept. He got half the equation right; fortunately it was the right half.

Jesus Christ Superstar is the 1971 Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical that follows the final weeks of Jesus Christ’s life as he arrives in Jerusalem with his disciples, ending with his crucifixion. Sung-through in its entirety, the show can be musically demanding and this cast of community and pre-professional actors, is largely up to its challenges.

On the concept level though, co-directors Mooney and Anna Kuman miss the mark by not fully committing to his idea of Christ as a modern-day superstar. While an interesting notion, there is little in the way of the celebrity obsession that Mooney claims to have framed the story. with the opening montage of 9/11, riots and a laugh-inducing appearance of our Prime Minster, the stage is set for the Jesus message of deliverance from our modern evils, rather than an attempt at portray Jesus as celebrity; the result is not a new container for the story, but one that seems obvious. That isn’t to say Mooney doesn’t get it right some of the time, but the inconsistencies make much of the staging a distraction to the story.

But if you push its distractions aside, including the two obtrusive LCD screens that frame the stage, there is some real talent desperate for focus and our attention. Keeping in mind that this review is based on a preview performance where the final kinks are still being worked out, hopefully the sound levels will be evened out to ensure audiences hear every word.

While the role of Jesus, played with conviction by Hal Wesley Rogers, may be the focal point, it is in the moments that the story focuses on Judas that really shine. As Judas, Ray Boulay is a powerhouse with his vocals and in his conflicted portrayal of the Christ betrayer; his opening number “Heaven on Their Minds” helps set the stage beautifully for his role as Christ’s betrayer. His reprise of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” leading up to his suicide is gritty and raw.

Other standouts include Sean Anthony as the equally conflicted Pontius Pilate and Myles McCarthy as Annas. For Anthony it is in the quieter “Pilate’s Dream” that he really gets to show his stuff, and McCarthy goes to the edge with Annas with vocals and a portrayal that goes deep; there is a playfulness to his performance that is a chilling contrast to his dark side.

Vanessa Merenda gives us a gorgeous rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, but her nerves appear to have got in the way of the necessary conflict in her mind.

The ensemble does some good work too, but they work overtime in overcoming yet another scaffold set. While one can appreciate that it allows for multiple levels, Mooney and Kuman spend so much time ensuring they use every square inch that it becomes another distraction. As the cast goes up and down the stairs or climb on its supports constantly, it felt at times as if were moving for no particular reason.

Music director Clare Wyatt leads the four-piece band with skill, easily handling the rock vibe of Webber’s music.

If it doesn’t serve the story it is merely noise. Rather than trying to come up with a fresh take on this 45-year old musical, Mooney and Kuman should have trusted more in their actors. That is where the story really comes alive, and I’ll take story over concept any day.

Jesus Christ Superstar. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. A FIghting Chance Productions presentation in association with Renegade Arts Company. Directed by Ryan Mooney and Anna Kuman. On stage at the Waterfront Theatre (1412 Cartwright Street, Granville Island) until August 23. Visit http://fightingchanceproductions.ca for tickets and information.