Jesus Christ Superstar
Powerful, passionate and poignant, this legend of a show continues to amaze and astound
Written as a concept album back in 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar went on to become one of the standout operas of the 20th century, marking Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice as luminaries in the musical theatre world and spawning a multitude of follow ups, homages and tributes. This current version, produced by The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and directed by Timothy Sheader carries all the power and passion as any version before, and with it, launches some soon to be superstars of its own.
A challenge to any production company when presenting a well known and oft seen show is how to ensure it feels fresh, new, engaging and different enough without straying from what people expect. This production, brilliantly designed by Tom Scutt and with some of the most amazing choreography we’ve ever seen by Drew McOnie is the perfect melding of the original ‘70’s rock concept opera with contemporary dance and costumes and an almost palpable nod to the current fad of the one minute celebrity. I know, it seems almost blasphemous to suggest Jesus Christ was a one minute celebrity but in the context of today’s social media, todays ‘must love’ is all too quickly denigrated into yesterday’s figure of hate, ridicule and scorn.
Ian McIntosh as Jesus Christ gives one of the most metamorphic performances this stage has seen – from an almost carefree, beloved and anointed King of the Jews, happy to accept the adulation, desperate to spread love and peace but at times almost blind to the warning signs, he descends into self-doubt, angst, anger, fear, loathing until eventually acceptance and resolution, all delivered with an amazing vocal performance and unrivalled charisma.
Playing ‘opposite’ JC is Judas – Shem Omari James, part narrator, part traitor and yet all disciple – James begins as the voice of reason, trying to counsel the messiah not to lose sight of His purpose, not to curry too much support in front of the ruling classes and ultimately not to betray him as a loyal follower. When he feels these warnings go unheard he becomes torn, does he protect himself, the people or on Jesus. We all know his choice but the amazing way in which he accepts his ‘pieces of silver’ is a stunning way to end act 1. Clearly James is destined for greatness and will be a name to look for in the coming years.
Providing the softer side to this hard hitting rock soundtrack is the beautifully voiced Hannah Richardson. Her soliloquy I Don’t Know How to Love Him was so mesmerising that you found yourself holding breath for fear of disturbing the perfection. Likewise, her repeated interludes of Everything’s Alright as Jesus was rounded on by his former followers provided painful peace in the turmoil and hatred. Hannah is most certainly a superstar of the future and one whose stock will rise and rise.
Whilst clearly the original was written in the early 70’s there are updated elements beyond the stunning choreography and staging – King Herod, played by the ever-youthful Julian Carey, is undeniably queer, giving an added friction between the recognised King and ‘so called King’. Clary’s Herod bedecked in a 10 meter gold cape and showing tolerance and acceptance befitting of the modern times, desperately wants to believe that Jesus is who everyone says he is. He gives Him every chance to ‘come out’ and embrace himself, but grows tiresome of his denial, eventually washing his hands of him and sending him back to Pilate (Ryan O’Donnell). Even O’Donnell’s Roman Governor shows signs of broadmindedness and acceptance, citing just because He is different does not warrant His execution but when Jesus again refuses to ‘come out’ he bows to the baying masses and orders the crucifixion.
The ‘39 Lashes’ scene preceding the actual crucifixion is very powerful, hypnotic at first and then, like an impending car crash, leaving the audience unable to turn away - Director Sheader has stripped bare the scene so as to ensure there is nowhere else to look as Jesus is beaten into total submission, with each rising number the audience flinching a little more.
The clever use of stage mics, instruments and percussion by the cast, coupled with the aforementioned brilliant choreography makes this more than just a musical performance, it is am immersive experience into the original concept album – as fresh as it was when first performance but as new and daring as anything you will see this year.
Jesus Christ Superstar is on at Newcastle Theatre Royal until Saturday September 30th.