‘Gender-blind’ Jesus Christ Superstar retelling propels classic into modern day

Jesus Christ Superstar at Centennial Theatre, 11/04/17

Photo by Robert Sondergaard

The set of Richard Berg’s adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar – which ran at the North Vancouver Centennial Theatre over the weekend – with its minimalist cross and Roman-style pillars, may have initially struck the audience as muted and traditional.

But the audience was soon bombarded with electric guitar and neon lights. On Saturday (Oct. 4),  Judas (Ali Watson) sprang onstage dressed in black with a leather jacket, ripped skinny jeans and wild, curly hair. Her voice reverberated through the theatre with the first song, “Heaven on Their Minds,” expressing doubts about Jesus Christ. Watson showed that the audience should be prepared for a loud, energetic and contemporary performance.

Next, Jesus (Nick Heffelfinger) and the Apostles came on stage. Jesus was dressed in a skewed black skinny tie, a baggy white button-up and grey skinny jeans, shaking people’s hands and smiling like a social media mogul. Jesus remained the traditional white male figure for the role, while the Apostles included male and female actors of different ethnicities.

In fact, there were eight female performers and six males. Three characters that significantly assist sending Jesus to his death – Judas, Herod and Pilate – were played by women (Ali Watson, Isabella Halladay, and Jennifer Suratos).

Photo by Robert Sondergaard

Watson commanded the audience whether she was lurking in the background or centre stage. She held her own in the many scenes where she and Jesus were in conflict staring each other down, inches from each other’s faces. Despite being notably shorter than Heffelfinger, Watson appeared large – her Judas leaned aggressively forward as his Jesus leaned back, their body language speaking more to their power dynamic than her height.

Those familiar with the play would not be disappointed with the changes – the performers sung the ballads with impressive skill and range, and did not adjust any lyrics. Heffelfinger, with his youthful face and frame, portrayed Jesus as a young man out of his depth, amazed at his own stardom. As Heffelfinger asked God “why should I die?” in “Gethsemane,” he began vulnerable and built to anger, and ended writhing on the ground in a desperately honest performance.

Those who came hoping for something new would also find enjoyment. The three high priests (Cristina Bertini, Chris Olson, Kelsey John Torok) who decide Jesus must die were an eclectic, steampunk trio in long black coats and top hats. Halladay’s King Herod was decadent, having great fun as she danced with her male and female underlings all dressed in fishnets, leather, and other pseudo-S&M clothing. Jesus broke up a temple with a disturbing sex trade that included twerking, sexual captives and general chaos. Judas returned in spirit to sing “Superstar,” wearing white garters and glittery sneakers. These adjustments add a distinctly burlesque vibe.

The supporting performances were equally impressive. Synthia Yusuf as Mary Magedelene exuded confidence. Peter (Caleb Lagayan) and Mary had soothing harmony. Some of the most imaginative performances came from the four Tormentors – stunning, silent dancers painted as Greek statues. They were in the background during Judas’ first number and remained on stage for most of the play. They began frozen in traditional poses; as Jesus’ crucifixion approached, and took poses of sorrow, burying their faces in their hands. The Tormentors only directly interacted with Judas as she struggled with her betrayal. They embodied her own personal demons as they came to life and surrounded her demonstrating impressive choreography, often towering over Judas as she crouched on the ground in fear.

The gender-blind casting spotlighted the women in a non-traditional way, but didn’t change the story significantly. The Kiss of Judas was on the lips, rather than the traditional kiss on the cheek. But those who were wishing for a gender-bending, radical portrayal of the play may have been left wanting, since the heteronormative Jesus and Mary remained at the centre of the story.

However, Berg has explained the play wasn’t politically gender-switching, but was meant to diversify limited roles for women in theatre. He called the play “gender-blind,” choosing performers solely based on merit. He told the CBC he and his team didn’t want to change Mary’s gender, though, saying “They don’t write a ton of great roles for women, so we weren’t going to take away the one that did this.”

So, while more could be done to radicalize gender and sex representations in Jesus Christ Superstar, that wasn’t Berg’s goal. His goal was to give opportunity to more talented women, which he did. And despite being fifty years old, the play didn’t feel dated – the energetic performers brought the play into 2017 and showed that there is always a new angle to an old story.