JCS Broadway: This One’s Got Swag, And Three Filipinos In It
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by Oliver Oliveros
My first dose of musical theater was through my uncle's old screechy phonograph recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's hippie, loud, angst-laden rock musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" (JCS). The classic stage hit, which was originally a concept album before evolving into a full-blown Broadway musical that follows the passion and death of Jesus Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot (much the same as Martin Scorsese's highly controversial film "The Last Temptation of Christ"), had completed its three-year run on Broadway (1971-1973), and its first commercial movie release (1973) by the time I got to experience JCS's electrifying, personally-impactful songs in the '80s though. So when the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Toronto, Canada announced late last year that its critically-acclaimed, deemed revolutionary production of JCS, directed by Tony winner Des McAnuff, was coming to Broadway, I was delighted to hear the news; and more so when I learned that three Filipino-Canadian musical theater artists – brothers Julius and Jason Sermonia, and Laurin Padolina – are part of the show.
"99 percent of the Broadway cast performed in McAnuff's production in Canada," said the older Sermonia, Julius, who plays the role of Jesus' disciple Peter whenever the original Peter, Mike Nadajewski, fills in the shoes of the flamboyant King Herod at some of the performances.
"And yes, I'm proud to be a Filipino," Julius told me the first time I met him.
Julius, who is also a singer, a dancer, and the fight captain in this JCS remake, and also BroadwayWorld.com's Gypsy for the Month of April, is not a greenhorn on the Great White Way; his Broadway debut was in another Webber musical, "Cats," playing the white-faced, feline magician Mr. Mistoffelees, in 1999. Besides his Broadway credits, his professional theater experience is brimming with U.S. national tours ("Cats," "Contact"), regional Theater Productions ("JCS," "Miss Saigon"), and Stratford Shakespeare Festival productions ("Evita," "West Side Story"), among others.
Julius' brother, Jason, who is engaged to Canadian actress Melanie Mcinenly, plays the role of Jesus' disciple John in the Tony-nominated revival production of JCS. His other theater credits include "Camelot" (his first stint at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival), Disney's "The Lion King" in Las Vegas, "Dirty Dancing," "We Will Rock You," Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," "The King & I," and "West Side Story," among others. He was also cast as one of the dancers in Rob Marshall's Academy Award-winning film adaptation of John Kander and Fred Ebb's Broadway musical "Chicago," released in 2002.
Laurin Padolina, whose roots were in Quezon province in the Philippines, was born and raised in Vancouver, plays Rachel in JCS, her Broadway debut. She is a professional dancer and a choreographer who had worked with the choreographers for Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, among others.
These three strong dancers – capable actors as well – together with Tony nominee Josh Young (Judas), Paul Nolan (Jesus), Chilina Kennedy (Mary Magdalene), Lee Siegel (Simon Zealotes) et al., have been strutting their stuff eight performances a week since McAnuff's reimagined production of one of Webber and Rice's earlier ground-breaking rock musicals opened at Neil Simon Theatre three months ago (another seminal work from Webber and Rice, "Evita," which charts the rise and fall of the former first lady of Argentina Eva Peron, starring Argentinian actress Elena Roger and Latin superstar Ricky Martin, is playing at Marquis Theatre, a few blocks away from JCS's theater).
JCS's brand marketers have been positioning the show as revolutionary, which I beg to differ: Similar to Stephen Schwartz and John Michael Tebelak's "Godspell," JCS' core creative concept, hippie lyrics were indeed subversive at the time the stage adaptation premiered in the early '70s; the JCS presentation I saw on Wednesday barely rewrote any of Rice's original lyrics to make it sound even more provocative.
McAnuff's staging is yes, glitzy and partly up-to-date; for instance, the stage is adorned with Robert Brill's metallic two-tiered set, platforms, staircases, ladders, and catwalks, and multi LED screens whose running display of readings from the Bible during Act Two's finale is nothing less than brilliant; and a bass-singing Caiaphas (Marcus Nance) and his minions wear leather trench coats, and Roman soldiers don contemporary military uniforms – think of stormtroopers.
Evidently, McAnuff drops the heavily bohemian attributes of the original Broadway production and its film counterpart, and replaces these pretty tired decades-old elements with an urban swag, exuberant party vibe, which, for me – apart from the Filipinos in the cast and Young's breathtaking performance as Judas – makes this incarnation of the sung-through, landmark rock musical one of the must-sees this Tony Award season.
Photos by Joan Marcus, Linda Lenzi