Jesus Christ Superstar

Lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
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Though written with stage production in mind, Jesus Christ Superstar first emerged on disc as a concept double album that treated the last days of Christ’s life as a sequence of numbers.

There isn’t a book in the conventional sense, it is a series of statements and confrontations rather than dialogue and there is no character development. It relies on its audience already knowing the Bible story to understand the action and appreciate Tim Rice’s sardonic re-appropriation of the Gospel versions in this rock opera rendering.

Timothy Sheader’s production takes all that on board and, rather than trying to make it work as music drama, embraces its rock concert aspects in a show that is loud and spectacular.

Tom Scutt’s design puts Jesus and his followers in scruffy street clothes, the guitar-carrying man from Nazareth marked out by a white tee-shirt, and provides a deceptively drab setting of three open floors of incomplete construction work with a cruciform trackway angled between them.

Roman governor Pontius Pilate looks like a policeman in riot gear but later the disciples don coloured cloaks, High Priest Caiaphas and his Sanhedrin are exotically bare-chested despite the ritually Jewish pattern of their garments and King Herod is fantastic in gold pleats that spread out over the stage before being shed, stripper-like. Drabness can turn to dazzle with blinding lights, coloured flares and Drew McOnie’s frenzy of dramatically jerky choreography.

As the band plays the overture, the cast parade through the auditorium carrying mike-stands, mikes on booms and other equipment. There is no pretence here of natural situations. This is an electronic world where all address or exchange is through a microphone whether hand-held or set on a stand.

At times, this can seem less like a battle for hearts and minds than for a place in the pop charts. It is not easy to establish contact between characters or with the audience if your focus is on the mike in front of you.

Declan Bennett doesn’t really manage it, however good he sounds. His Jesus is most effective when, blood-covered, he suffers the shows flagellation equivalent in “39 Lashes”, able to play direct to the audience as his tormentors throw explosions of gold dust to merge with the gore.

Tyrone Huntley as Judas, a role more strongly characterised in the writing, doesn’t let the mike form a barrier and delivers a great performance. The production adds a brilliant theatrical touch smearing his hands with the silver he receives forhis treachery.

Cavin Cornwall is a magnificently rich-voiced Caiaphas with real presence (with strong support from his Elders) and Peter Caulfield revels in the antics of this camp Herod.

Anoushka Lucas, as Mary, misses out on the lyricism of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. She seems made to rush through that beautiful number without feeling (Huntley is allowed much more in his brief reprise of it) but she delivers “Could We Start Again, Please?” with real emotion.

Microphones having been so noticeably present throughout, Timothy Sheader makes ironic use of them. Not only do they become part of the Sanhedrin’s rods of authority but their stands form the Golgotha cross, their cables hang Judas, his mike swinging metaphorically as he leaves the stage, and their cables restrain Jesus through his tormenting.

Though at first this production doesn’t move through an emotional connection with its ideas, it is packed with energy. The ensemble really delivers and the evening builds its theatrical excitement through its choreography and visual staging. It had an audience wild with enthusiasm giving a standing ovation. Arena pop concerts are not my entertainment choice but, despite earlier reservations, I too succumbed eventually.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton