Tuesday 13 February 2024

Jesus Christ Superstar

 Curve, Leicester

12th February, 2024

And relax, think of nothing tonight

Eight years after Timothy Sheader’s Olivier Award-winning production of Jesus Christ Superstar opened at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre to great acclaim, and following runs at the Barbican and in North America, it’s on tour in the UK. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1971 musical, which started life as a concept album in 1970, takes the Passion story (the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion) and turns it into a rock opera. The result is arguably their best work. As a child, I remember loving the studio recordings of Joseph and Cats which we had on VHS, watching them on repeat. We also had Jesus Christ Superstar which I was probably too young to appreciate. To 8-year-old me, the whole thing (and Rik Mayall’s show-stealing performance as Herod alone) was simultaneously strange, terrifying and fixating. Over twenty years later, the experience is the same. In what is a thrilling production which often leaves you holding your breath, you find yourself succumbing to the experience.

Any director is posed with the dilemma of what type of production of Superstar they want to stage. Do you stage a more literal portrayal of events or lean towards something more figurative? Do you impose a high concept on it such as Laurence Connor’s 2012 arena production which was inspired by the Occupy protests? Or perhaps an aerial production like the one opening under the direction of Ivo van Hove in Amsterdam this year? Sheader has a clarity of vision which results in a production which is original, authentic to the show’s origins and is full of strong visual metaphors.

Tom Scutt’s industrial design is flagged by twin rusting steel structures which house the band. Between this, a raked catwalk in the style of the cross dominates the stage, beyond which a barely visible olive tree branch can be seen, hinting at something natural and ethereal. It’s a clean, modern aesthetic which serves the production extremely well. Sheader strips the show’s history of any concepts or obtuse imagery, portraying the story unambiguously and with clear artistic decisions. Music is a key motif: amps can be plugged into the stage and songs are often performed with hand mics and accompanied by guitars. Flight cases become part of the set, and microphones play a vital role in the deaths of both protagonists, including Judas hanging himself using a microphone wire. It’s often visually stunning too. At the end of act one, Judas (Shem Omari James, superb) takes a bribe from Caiaphas (Jad Habchi). Bringing his hands out of the chest, his hands are dripping in silver, stained for the rest of the show as a physical sign of his betrayal and guilt. And in the lead up to the title song, Jesus receives 39 lashes of golden glitter. It’s brutal, striking and oddly fabulous at the same. As Jesus crawls up the cross covered in blood and glitter, he’s strung up on the cross made of microphone stands. ‘Superstar’ is a coup-de-théâtre in itself: musically electrifying and enough to convert a non-believer into the power of theatre whilst being transcendent beyond it as well.

Scutt’s design is gorgeously complemented by Lee Curran’s lighting: from the orange flashes and roaming spotlights which enhance the feeling of a music gig, to bathing the stage in blue and purple during Mary Magdalene’s songs (delivered in a soulful and earthy performance from Hannah Richardson). Lloyd Webber’s music (realised here in Tom Deering’s musical supervision) delivers a full sound. It can go from wistful flutes and lulling piano melodies to strange, dissonant rock sounds within the space of a few bars. It’s a rich and varied score from the brilliant opening number ‘Heaven on their Minds’ to more playful songs such as ‘Herod’s Song’ – I was surprised but not shocked to learn that its melody was a reject for the Eurovision Song Contest! ‘Herod’s Song’ is delivered with panache by Timo Tatzber, here reminiscent of the Emcee from Cabaret. Ian McIntosh as Jesus has a powerful voice, particularly in the belting moments such as ‘Gethsemane’. And Drew McOnie’s spasmatic choreography veers from capturing the frenetic ecstasy of the heady hero worshipping of the early scenes to expertly portraying the intensity of the baying mob. It’s here that the ensemble really comes together, moving as one and filling the stage to an overwhelming effect.

Strange, terrifying, fixating, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the best productions of a musical I’ve ever seen.

Jesus Christ Superstar plays at Curve, Leicester until 17th February as part of a UK tour. For further information please visit https://uktour.jesuschristsuperstar.com/

Ian McIntosh as Jesus and Shem Omari James as Judas with the company of Jesus Christ Superstar. Credit: Paul Coltas

No comments:

Post a Comment