To conclude the first week of openings at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s/Tim Rice’s most vivid collaboration filled the Avon Theatre for two hours with one of the world’s first rock operas (premièring on Broadway in 1971 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre where it ran for 711 performances).
Like most other operas since Puccini’s day, there is precious little dialogue—in this case reserved, for the climactic scene of Christ on the cross. More than ever, the music is the prime ingredient.
Rock is meant to be full-blooded, energetic and pulsating. Lyrics are meant to be heard. With both cast and pit band (with just 11 players recreating the original orchestration, the sum of these parts is most certainly not an orchestra) fighting for air time via microphones, sound board and speakers, it’s—once again—left to others beyond the point of origin to determine how everything will be heard and understood.
Infuriatingly, with just a 20% adjustment downwards in favour of stage over the pit, this production could have been the best music theatre heard at Stratford in years. Fortunately for some (including your reporter), having grown up on the original cast recording, every word for nearly every song was already known. For the rest, there must have been more than a little bit of confusion. Why should anyone have to virtually read lips to appreciate the marvellous lyrics of the ballads (e.g., Mary Magdalene in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”; Judas in “Superstar”)? Worse still, if there really is state-of-the-art equipment being employed, what is the excuse for the litany of distortions during the full-bore chorus numbers? Ironically, when a bed of string tone should have added much-desired depth/warmth to the accompaniments, the electronic keyboard “recreations” of bow, resin and fingerboard pressure were so slight, that any chance for balance was as doomed as Jesus Christ. Musically speaking, “Everything’s Not Alright.”
In other news, an announcement from the stage informed the crowd that viral infection or not, Paul Nolan was going to soldier on in the title role. As difficult a decision as that appeared to be (delaying the show by nearly 20 minutes), it may not have been a healthy choice. Most certainly the vocal contributions from the talented actor were under strain (including a late-inning register change, likely as a consequence of the near screaming histrionics prior to crucifixion). With an able voice/actor (Jonathan Winsby) listed as understudy, it seemed unfair to both the audience and Nolan that he/we be put in jeopardy.
Josh Young played Judas Iscariot with a deft flare for dramatic betrayal. His vocal contributions were some of the finest from the company, if somewhat pushed rather than supported in the sustained top. No matter what he was saying, Marcus Nance’s rich, dark bass was a constant pleasure, infusing the role of Caiaphas with just the right amount of political vision and menace (“I see bad things arising” … “This Jesus must die” indeed).
For King Herod’s famous song with a Dixie feel and snappy lyrics (“Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool”), Bruce Dow pulled out all of his comedic and register stops. Surrounded by the inventiveness of Lisa Shriver’s athletic choreography (word/body painting at its best: “You can do it on your head,” being just one example), this number was a delight. The only caution came between verses: why waste Dow’s triple threat by merely having him take a turn on the stage piano?
Pontius Pilate was done up to a troubled tee courtesy of Brent Carver’s superb understanding of the tormented Roman ruler (“And then I hear them mentioning my name / And leaving me the blame” was unforgettable). Peter as denialist incarnate and understandable coward (somewhat similar in character to Al’s desire not to get involved two nights earlier in The Grapes of Wrath) came to uneasy life thanks to Mike Nadajewski. Still, who amongst us could cast the first stone when moral push comes to shove?
Robert Brill’s metallic, scaffolding-framed set (with a distant echo of Rent) worked well. The cast had loads of room for the big numbers and three levels to declaim their stories, dance up a storm or—perhaps a touch over the narrative top—commit suicide. Scene du jour was the crucifixion. Having employed TSX-like streaming quotes swirling around the action to keep the audience’s day timer up-to-date as the last week of Christ’s life was described, it seemed perfectly at one with director Des McAnuff’s love of spectacle to have the Son of Nazareth’s body and cross surrounded by over-sized Broadway marquee bulbs.
The audience enthusiastically cheered their delight at, perhaps, the world’s most famous martyr, whether or not they could savour the nuance and subtleties of Tim Rice’s brilliant lyrics. JWR