You have 58 chances left to catch “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Canada’s Stratford Festival and decide for yourself whether Des McAnuff’s chilling revival deserves the hoopla that has made it the summer’s most talked-about show.
“Superstar” charts the week before Jesus’s crucifixion, as seen mostly from the perspective of Judas. In his view (or the view of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice), Jesus has bought his own publicity and it has led Him astray. McAnuff strips the show of Technicolor pageantry (except for the Vegas act that is Herod’s court). Paul Nolan’s Jesus is vacant-eyed and monotone, His charisma perhaps numbed by fear and doubt.
Chilina Kennedy’s gorgeous-voiced Mary Magdalene (“Could We Start Again, Please” is even more moving than the familiar “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”) only seems to harden the reluctant savior, while Josh Young’s Judas grieves that no amount of self-justification will alter his judgment by history. Rating: ***
McAnuff, a rock composer himself, takes one of Shakespeare’s best-known opening lines -- “If music be the food of love, play on” -- charmingly to heart in his second Stratford show, “Twelfth Night.”
He and writing partner Michael Roth have packed this comedy of mismatched, cross-dressed lovers, separated siblings and general carousing with a pastiche score that references the blues, doo-wop, the E Street Band, John Lennon and more. One minute a quartet of sax players is moving rhythmically together; the next it’s a half-dozen strummers with black Johnny Cash guitars.
Brian Dennehy is the draw as the boisterous Sir Toby Belch, but he’s outshone by Suzy Jane Hunt’s achingly tender Viola, especially in her guise Cesario.
McAnuff doesn’t ignore the play’s dark undercurrent as Sir Toby and his accomplices -- Sir Andrew Aguecheek (the very funny, wormy Stephen Ouimette) and chamber maid Maria (rambunctious Cara Ricketts) -- cruelly trick the pompous steward Malvolio (Tom Rooney, underplaying beautifully). The ending would be dark indeed were it not for the engaging Ben Carlson, a tuneful Feste who makes the entire show sing. Rating: ***
The remarkable Darko Tresnjak, an off-Broadway regular, directs a ruthlessly gory “Titus Andronicus.” No fey red ribbons substitute for blood here. Ripped-out tongues and chopped off hands bleed juicily from gaping holes, abused slaves reach greedily through the cages containing them.
John Vickery plays the Roman general who discovers too late that his fealty to power is no protection against brutal betrayal. Vickery follows the likes of Christopher Plummer (in the audience at the performance I attended) into the Stratford pantheon with a melifluous baritone and a proud, if sometimes stolid presence. Claire Lautier and Dion Johnstone are spectacularly effective as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and Aaron, her Moorish lover and partner in carnage. Rating: ***
Yet no crimson rivers touched me as much during my weekend at Stratford as Jonathan Winsby’s Lancelot singing the hoary “If Ever I Would Leave You” as though it -- and “Camelot” itself -- had been freshly minted.
Gary Griffin’s elegant staging, with superb fight choreography by Todd Campbell, blows away the cobwebs on Lerner and Loewe’s retelling of the Arthur legend, and all the performances are first class: Kaylee Harwood as Guenevere, Brent Carver in the dual roles of wise old Merlyn and quixotic Pellinore and, especially Geraint Wyn Davies as the thoughtful and only slightly dim king. As superstars go, he’s the one I’m sticking with. Rating: ****
The Stratford season runs through October 30 in Stratford, Ontario, about 90 minutes west of Toronto by car. Information: 1-800-567-1600; http://www.stratfordfestival.ca
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Not So Good (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)