Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
David Ian, Crossroads Live, Work Light Productions, Nederlander Productions Co Ltd, Michael Watt and Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
Palace Theatre, Manchester
When Jesus Christ Superstar was first staged in the early 1970s, it managed to offend Christians, by depicting Christ as a human not a deity and omitting the resurrection, and Jews, who took exception to being portrayed as the villains. Seeing as the last UK census showed less than half the current population describe themselves as Christians, one assumes the show is now less likely to cause outrage. One thing that is certain is the current production will surprise and dazzle jaded theatregoers who expect a simple staging of a now classic show.
The mood in the theatre is one of oppression rather than occupation. The overture plays over a darkened stage with, in the first of many religious icon references, a raised walkway in the shape of a cross. The cast, in celebratory defiant mood, rush through the audience, transforming the stage into an underground gathering or rave, forming a group which bursts to reveal Ian McIntosh as Jesus.
McIntosh carries an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. The Messiah as a protest singer? Well, Tim Rice did say Dylan’s "With God on Our Side" was an influence on the lyrics. It also helps the audience accept Pilate as a leather-clad rocker and the priests of the Temple doing a bump and grind routine.
Director Timothy Sheader sets a relentlessly dark mood including, in act two, the brutal battering of Jesus, which leaves the white clothes of the thuggish crowd stained with blood. Lee Curran’s lighting is constantly shadowy, and even the celebratory Hosanna has a baked, arid feel rather than one of warmth. The only splash of colour is Julian Clary playing Julian Clary—sorry, Herod—as a full-on Sun King.
Sheader litters the show with religious iconography. Crosses appear as microphone stands and, during the Last Supper, the cast strike a tableau that looks remarkably like da Vinci’s mural of the event. Judas receives a ‘mark of Cain’ with his hands being stained silver. Jesus regularly crowd-surfs over his followers and unconsciously makes a cruciform shape.
The darker side of fame, the ‘Superstar’ aspect of the title, is explored grimly with Judas using a microphone lead as a hangman’s noose and Christ being crucified on a microphone stand.
A major success of the production is Drew McOnie’s choreography. The ensemble is in almost constant motion and McOnie’s choreography suggests a group caught up in religious ecstasy, moving without conscious volition as a gestalt creature. Yet there is an ugliness, a sense of potential violence under the surface, particularly as one dancer steps forward as a cheerleader driving the others to greater excess. It is no surprise in act two that the same people who cheered Christ in act one turn into a raging mob demanding his death.
Jesus Christ Superstar is often staged as a face-off between the actors playing Jesus and Judas. There is, however, no doubt in the current production the former dominates. Ian McIntosh raises the roof with "Gethsemane", but the most striking aspect of his vocals is beautiful clarity and precision. McIntosh plays Jesus as a peacemaker, reasoning with the temple Priests and seeking to mend his deteriorating relationship with Judas. Shem Omari James plays Judas as more of a hothead, in his first appearance stepping in front of McIntosh and taking over the microphone. Yet there is a sulkiness of someone who resents that his importance in the scheme of things has diminished.
Imaginative staging and stunning vocals and choreography ensure the current production of Jesus Christ Superstar is essential viewing.
Reviewer: David Cunningham