If you are the kind of person who doesn’t understand why Sirs Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice are heroes in the annals of musical theatre, Timothy Sheader’s crackling and energetic revival of Jesus Christ Superstar ought bring you enlightenment. It is bursting with ideas, full of magnificent performances, fuelled by Drew McOnie’s spirited and sexy choreography and, most importantly, fabulously sung. Heaven, in fact.
They are sexy, sleazy, sly. Out of the shadows they dart and weave. They ply their trades – money lending, prostitution, gambling, sins of the flesh, pocket-lining gambits – in a carefree melee, notable for the amount of finely honed flesh on show and the sense of raunchy rapacious revelry signified by the excess of gold. Gold clothing. Gold war paint. Gold coins. Glitter and be damned. An intoxicating evocation of lust and avarice.
Then he comes, a fulminating tornado of horrified despair. The howls of pain emanating from the deepest part of his being shatter the mood, restore a sense of purpose and calm to the temple. This is the first time the man has seemed capable of miracles, of exorcisms of importance. Like a cloud of deadly radiation, his utter revulsion and unwillingness to permit these transgressions to continue in his Father’s house hangs thickly, murderously, over the crowd. The sense of his commitment is palpable. Haunting.
In an instant, everything changes – tempi, mood, attitude. Now, where there were pimps, bankers and whores, there are beggars, the disabled, the unwanted, the unloved. Props convert from items of garish pleasure to crutches and support braces. They want to touch him, share in his light, his peace. Somewhat reluctantly, he lets them.
This is Jesus Christ Superstar, now playing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, in a revival helmed by Timothy Sheader, with musical direction from Tom Deering and choreography from Drew McOnie. It’s a stripped back production (and all the better for that) which emphasises the non-traditional and controversial aspects of the lyrics and shows Jesus as a reluctant martyr, a conflicted hero and a flawed man. It also puts Judas clearly and correctly in the spotlight, and ensures that the other parts all get their moment in the sun.
Powerful and rewarding, and chock full of clever images, ideas and conceits, this is about as good as it gets for Jesus Christ Superstar which itself is pretty damn good. As Michael Coveney says in his programme note, the original concept recording was
“…original and exhilarating. The music had tremendous energy which, blending with Rice’s cynical, quizzical lyrics, never stood still for a minute.”
Sheader’s production, carried high by Deering’s mastery of the score and the band and McOnie’s tribal dance aesthetic, is just as original and exhilarating at that first recording. It feels spontaneous and new, challenging and straight-forward all at once.
Tom Scutt’s metallic set, a rusty thing of balconies and platforms, has a powerhouse feel about it and seems apt for a production in a traditional theatre rather than an open air space. Almost no use is made of the Regent’s Park living backdrop. This is not a problem; it merely seems a surprising missed opportunity. A large fallen crucifix bisects the acting space, providing opportunities for different levels as well as a constant reminder of the story’s well known climax.
Everything is lit magnificently, thrillingly even, by Lee Curran whose use of different levels of illumination and colour is masterful. Daylight robs Curran’s work of maximum impact in Act One, but in Act Two, when nature matches the darkness of plot developments, it comes into its own, inventively and assuredly.
Directorial ideas burst into action and bring about interesting results. Jesus is onstage from the start and clearly sees Judas as competition; there is a clever, bristling moment when Judas takes the microphone before Jesus can and launches into Heaven On Their Minds. The look on Jesus’ face is priceless. In an instant, the rivalry and tension between the two is perfectly established.
Pilate is physically similar to Jesus. This is unusual, but speaks to questions of power eloquently. With Jesus and Pilate both charismatic and sexy, the dynamic of their relationship is very different. Who is being judged?
Herod appears like some character in a classical baroque opera, all over-packaged exuberance, and the ensemble around him evoke the whole Salome/seven veils/head of John The Baptist mystique in a way that is ghoulish and hilarious. There is a Lady Gaga sensibility about Herod which works superbly. Excess and duress in sparkling form.
Gold and glitter have a corporeal presence. When Jesus is flogged by Pilate, each stroke of the lash is represented by gold glitter and paint thrown on/at him. This has the result of evoking any number of impressive portraits that one might see in galleries in Florence or Rome. At other points, the choreography involves hand gestures and poses which are familiar from different classical paintings – and The Last Supper is recreated cleverly at a key moment (to the delight of the audience).
Caiaphas is portrayed as some Grace Jones type, powerful and eccentric. He, Annas and the priests constitute a kind of decadent, camp boy band, complete with precise, fluid routines and flowing robes. The disciples wear robes too; they have a post-apocalyptic feel about them. Mad Max meets any biblical epic. The sense of tribal identity, of tribal ritual and sensibility is woven throughout the piece.
The forces of Rome are also deftly established by references to art. A noble bust of a Caesar, the kind you might find in almost any European museum, is a constant watchful presence; Pilate uses it to establish power and so do the Centurians when they appear. It’s simple but astonishingly effective.
Nick Lidster for Autograph provides a smashing sound design which is loud when it should be, subtle and insinuating when it needs to be, and, critically, never swamps the clarity of the lyrics. The singing generally is first rate and, happily, Lidster’s sound design allows it to be properly supported and shown off.
Every aspect of Sheader’s production works. In a way, it’s simplicity is its key; equally, though, there are complex and original touches, gambles even, which really pay off. There are no imposed directorial conceits here. Rather, everything that happens adds to the understanding and comprehension of the score and lyrics. If only more revivals were approached this way.
The greatest gamble comes with the way Declan Bennett portrays Jesus. No flowing long hair, no long white gown, no sense of referential awe (either about him or in reference to him) and no attempt at godliness. This Jesus is a man, just a man, and he has faults and fears. He is not sure he can do the task which his father has entrusted him to do and he keeps letting his personal feelings intrude on his mission. He is both jealous of Judas and can’t succeed without him.
Judas is smart, attractive, passionate, aware; Jesus is a riot of uncertainty and passive aggressive arrogance. The dynamic is fascinating and really works. It permits Judas to be the propelling force of the piece, to take the lead, get the audience on side – to shine.
And, for a while, it seems unfeasible that Judas will not be the Hero – he is certainly the star.
But the Temple scene, and then Gethsemane, permits Bennett to show his steel, to illuminate the inherent power and terror in the notion of a person agreeing to become a human in order to be viciously slaughtered. By ensuring that Jesus’ status as victim is given appropriate emphasis, Sheader also underlines the raw deal Judas is given. As the Ultimate Victim, Judas deserves sympathy – and Tyrone Huntley’s flawless performance ensures Judas gets it.
Huntley has a voice which is blissfully energetic, buoyant and powerful at the top, and which effortlessly travels the distance from sotto voce to fortissimo, and every stop in between, with panache and genuine style. His big eyes and agile physicality convey emotion and meaning with zeal and exemplary skill. Huntley is an exceptional Judas.
Bennett’s Jesus is the perfect foil for Huntley’s thrilling performance. He has an awkwardness borne out of jealousy and uncertainty which is immensely powerful. He lets Huntley take the singing honours in Act One, setting the audience up for his striking, masterful rendition of Gethsemane – the product of the careful character work (acting and singing) he has done before that. This is a unique take on the most famous Galilean of them all – but rewarding in every way.
Anoushka Lucas is marvellous as Mary and she has exactly the right voice for her big numbers, Everything’s Alright, Could We Start Again Please? and I Don’t Know How To Love Him. She has a pure, gloriously true, voice which takes each phrase and lets it shimmer and sparkle. Pain punctuates many phrases, and the sense of unconditional love Lucas portrays is powerful and convincing.
There is excellent support too from Joel Harper-Jackson who is in glorious voice as Simon Zealotes. Phil King’s Peter is equally splendidly sung, and he brings a brutal realism to Peter’s feckless support of Jesus. Together, Lucas, Harper-Jackson and King enliven the idea of the apostles and Jesus’ ability to persuade and reassure.
As Caiaphas, Cavin Cornwall puts the basso profundo into High Priest mode, and his gravelly bottom-of-the-ocean sound is marvellous to behold. He makes Caiaphas funky as well as appalling. Marvellous.
Sean Kingsley works hard as Annas, but he does not find the right level for his performance, and the character is lost in a swirl of mediocrity. Ashley Andrews, Omari Douglas and Joseph Proise, as unnamed priests, make more of the opportunities the music and choreography provide. As a quintet, though, these evil, dancing, upper echelon religious rulers are a treat.
The role of Herod is often played for laughs, and frequently camp laughs. Peter Caulfield treads a different path, and although his performance does raise laughs, it is also spiky and left-field; like a reflection of modern politics, Caulfield’s Herod is a contradiction of stateliness and lewdness. You might laugh at him, but you know how deadly he is. Superb.
David Thaxton is a feisty, bouncy Pilate. He leaps about the stage and matches the overt physicality of the majority of other performances. As ever, he sings with clarion clear diction and a beautiful, seductive tone. When he makes harsh sounds, there is a clear reason. He is slightly hamstrung by a guitar in Pilate’s Dream, but his vocal gymnastics with Jesus are chilling and unbeatable. Trial By Pilate is mesmerising.
There is really nothing not to like here. This is a well cast, superbly sung, wonderfully acted, insightful and coherent revival of a classic musical. Despite its age and the frequency with which it is revived, Jesus Christ Superstar feels newly minted here.
In no small part, this is because of the near hypnotic effect created by Drew McOnie’s choreography. The movement seduces and entices, capturing attention and emphasising plot points and character. McOnie is a major talent and his work here merely underlines that fact.
Sheader and Deering have given voice and power to Jesus Christ Superstar for 2016; McOnie has given it legs. This is a production full of triumph and fabulous invention. It should transfer to the West End and play for decades. It’s the kind of revival the West End really needs.