I’ll just say it: Jesus Christ Superband rocks. The rock operetta traces the last weeks in the life of JC. He returns to Jerusalem to adoring fans, alienates close disciples with a lax attitude towards local whores, and suffers the pressures of stardom. Spoiler alert: sold out by Judas to the high priests, JC has his last supper and then faces his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. No need to hit church next week for Easter if you watch the show. You’ll get the full story of the passion here.
Your momma probably saw a version of the original 1971 Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice Broadway musical, since it’s been revived countless times. More familiar is the 1973 cult film’s ability to evoke strong feelings from its viewers as either whiny, insipid, and tedious, or groovy, cool, and artsy. All were reviled by religious groups for anti-Semitism, inaccuracy, and the kind of stuff religious groups generally protest. Fight the Power!
The Theatre St. Catherine version takes the best of all these, combines it with the theatre’s greatest strengths (improv, creativity, lack of pretense), and in its committed way, puts on a massive production with heart. To begin, Jesus is played by a woman (Sandi Armstrong), Mary Magdalene by a man (Warren Spicer). The gender bending could have been played for camp, but prudently isn’t. One almost forgets that this Jesus has breasts. Almost. Just think of all those feminine images of Indian gods and it’ll be easier. The key actors belt out the well-known songs like rock stars performing at a sold-out Bell Centre. The band stays on stage the entire time, taking on the roles of the high priests and Roman elite of Jerusalem. Behind them, a movie screen shows appropriate imagery to each song, a mélange of symbolic shapes, clips of Christian television, and at least one clip from the 1973 film. Between some songs, improv dialogue between a Judas-punk and a Christian keeps things grounded. “I haven’t been to Sodom since, you know…”
The production is both madness and genius. Undertaking a massive spectacle in the small space with a cast far smaller than the original production requires seem like sheer lunacy. Yet, the TSC pulls it off and it never feels skimpy. Local indie musicians step in to most of the roles and elevate the production to feel professional, but not slick.
The real mark of a musical, though, is in its singing. Blow this and it’s curtains, literally. Jesus Christ Superband draws on Montreal’s indie musician scene, and while the crossover from musician to musical performer isn’t always a success, this one hits every note (now that’s a pun). The highly-charged songs — songs I must confess to loving – Jesus Christ Superstar enjoyed a spot in my tape collection next to the Jesus and Mary Chain and Joy Division — are performed with emotion and sincerity. Christian Ngabonziza (Judas Iscariot) emotes down to his knees as he belts his songs, his eyes filling with tears. Armstrong’s performance puts Ted Neely’s original to shame. Spicer initially seems awkward with manly arms strumming his acoustic in a vampy dress, but his Mary Magdalene is both sensual and devoted. Alain Mercieca shakes his golden sex thang as King Herod. Eric Digras with oversized sunglasses and a wig is Abbie Hoffman reimagined as Simon Zealot. Jeff Louch captures the sinister cruelty of Pontius Pilate. Tony Spina, Josée Forsyth Morrissette in a giant hat, and Liam Tucker are just as awesome. Of course, Le Nouveau International’s dancers and singers take on the unwashed masses with prowess, whether shimmying, adoring, or begging for healing.
All in all, I had way too much fun watching this production, but I wasn’t alone. The audience was on its feet dancing, and plenty clapped or waved their arms about. It’s hard not to sing along to the songs. In sum, this ain’t your mother’s Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s way better.
Jesus Christ Superband plays at Theatre St. Catherine (264 St. Catherine E) from April 17-20. 8p.m. Tickets $15/20.