Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Sunderland Empire and touring
This is where it really began. Superstar was the first (I'd better add "major", just in case I've forgotten something) modern sung-through musical, which paved the way for greats such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon (also currently touring). It was also the first major Andrew Lloyd Webber work, leaving aside Joseph which developed over a period of time and which, fun though it is, is not in the same class. Indeed, I'd go so far as to suggest that it is ALW's best work.
Having not see it for around twenty years, except in amateur productions, but having seen it in its original West End production and a later touring version, and knowing by heart every word and every note of the film soundtrack, I was a little unsure how (a) it would stand up, and (b), how I would react.
I needn't have worried. It has stood the test of time and still retains its power to move. It's been given a 21st century makeover, of course, and, while the set (designed by Paul Farnsworth) is most impressive, it is outshone (pardon the pun) by the lighting (by Nick Richings). He makes great use of intelligent lights, what looks like practically every colour in Rosco's range, and probably consumes more smoke fluid in one performance than most shows do in a month, but the effect is tremendous. Indeed, if there were an award for best lighting in a touring show, it would take a lot to knock this off the top spot.
When Judas arrives at the High Priest's palace to betray Jesus, the lighting is moody, with threatening shadows everywhere, a perfect reflection of his feelings, so why, oh why pick him up in a follow spot? Admittedly it was soft-edged, but it was still an intrusion and immediately killed the emotional impact.
But that is the only criticism I would make of the staging and I suspect it was a directorial rather than a lighting design decision. We really don't need to have every feature clearly delineated, even in a musical. Shadows can be much more effective than brightness, just as, in dialogue, silence can at times be more effective than speaking, as Pinter has shown.
What of the performances? For me, three stand out. Helen Catherine-Ball as Mary Magdalene gave what I would consider to be the definitive performance in the part. Where it is needed, she has the vulnerability and sweetness that Yvonne Elliman had in the film version, but she also has a harder edge which makes her "profession" seem realistic. Tim Churchill gave us a Pilate who is agonised by the decision he has to make and there was real desperation in "Talk to me, Jesus" and despair in "Don't let me stop your great self-destruction". The part of Herod, of course, is a gift to any performer and Martin Callaghan made the most of it.
But what of the two main characters, Jesus and Judas? I was perfectly happy with Craig Price's Jesus for most of the time, although there was a very noticeable summoning up the strength when he had to hit some of the higher (and they are very high!) notes, but the scourging of the merchants in the Temple was a bit of an anticlimax. Admittedly he had little to work on physically - a couple of tables to up-end or kick over would have helped enormously - but there was a lack of passion there which disappointed me. And as for Judas, Jon Boydon has a magnificent voice but I felt that his body language did not match the feeling of the songs: there needed to be more tension there.
The chorus work, as we have come to expect in modern musicals, was absolutely spot-on.
The audience loved it and many leapt to their feet at the end. I certainly was not disappointed: an old favourite of more than thirty years was given new life for me. Great stuff!
The production runs at the Empire until 18th June, and then goes on to Bristol, Milton Keynes, Cheltenham and Eastbourne.
Steve Orme reviewed the same production but with a different cast in Nottingham.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan