Jesus Christ Superstar at The Churchill Theatre

Having wowed audiences at Regents Park Theatre in 2017 Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic rock musical which tells the story of the last days of Jesus is on tour. With hype surrounding the show following its Olivier award win in 2017 for best revival, will the show live up to the hype….read on to find out.

Programme notes quote director Timothy Sheader as saying “Our production centres on the music, which is eternal. It centres on colour, tone and metals, both rich and poor, that give an everlasting aesthetic to Lloyd Webber’s music.” On which basis it is safe to say that this was a terrific production. Musical direction by Michael Riley was spot on. Capturing the “aesthetic of popular music,” rich band arrangements for the band supported some outstanding individual and company vocal work, in no small way thanks to excellent sound design by Nick Lidster. The overall visual effect of Tom Scutt’s set and costume design combined with Lee Curran’s lighting bridged the gap between the sought after stadium vibe and the requirements of theatrical presentation.

The role of Jesus is of course massive – vocally and dramatically demanding as well as being emotionally draining. Ian MacIntosh was outstanding. His voice had both the required power as well as sensitivity to communicate the authority of a messiah as well as the vulnerability associated with his humanity and inevitable consequences of his life path. The touchstone of this role is the epic Gethsemane. This however really only got into its stride when he dispensed with the guitar he initially accompanied himself with. While its use earlier in the performance underlined his rock superstar status, it created a serious distraction from the emotional arc of the song’s narrative since it gave the initial impression of performance rather than internal monologue. Once allowed to proceed unencumbered, the drama really came to life.

The role of Judas is absolutely crucial to the drama of Jesus Christ Superstar. The story hinges on his struggle to make sense of the chaos he believes he is surrounded by, reconcile this with the ideals of the man he thought he had been following and ultimately betrays in an effort to find some kind of resolution. Unfortunately, while Shem Omari James had a terrific voice, his diction was not great. The result (confirmed from overheard conversations elsewhere in the theatre) was that half of the show’s story was lost. Since no similar issues were evident in any other principal performance, the problem cannot be ascribed to sound production. Hannah Richardson was crystal clear as Mary,  her story telling was spot on for I Don’t Know How To Love Him. Similarly, Ryan O’Donnell’s Pilate was excellent in vocalising the dilemma inherent in his position.

The appearance of Herod always provides respite from the darker atmosphere of the rest of the show and Timo Tatzber did not disappoint in that respect, although hard pushed to match the unavailable Julian Clary for sheer stage presence. Special credit should also go to the ensemble for physical and vocal energy. Drew McOnie’s choreography ensured that there was always something interesting going on when the stage was filled with company.

Timothy Sheader’s direction showed huge imagination, with numerous visual features, such the clever use of microphone stands inverted as props for various uses such as spears and symbols of office as well a microphone choreography itself. The construction of a traditional last supper tableau within an otherwise modern presentation was very effective. However, while successful in centring the production on the music, it has to be said that the story lost out as a result. Ultimately, Jesus Christ Superstar is not a rock concert but a piece of theatre. It cannot be assumed that every member of the audience is familiar with the story. As such, overuse of visual effect and symbolism gets in the way. Having Roman guards wear masks based on what appeared to be ancient statues (particularly picked out so strongly in the lighting) distracted from their actual role. The temple scene was incomprehensible on that basis. While the aural effect of the discordant crucifixion ensemble was effective, this was at the expense of some really important words from Jesus on the cross.

Overall therefore, while the production itself was exceptionally well packaged and still well worth going to see, elements interfering with the essential story telling were still such that it cannot quite reach the level of a  five star show.

Review by Robin Kelly

Jesus Christ Superstar is playing at the Churchill Theatre until 2nd March 2024. To find out more about Jesus Christ Superstar and its future tour dates you can visit the website.

If you like this review you might also like my review of Hadestown, Pretty Woman and Cruel Intentions.

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