CentralDramaMusicalReview

Jesus Christ Superstar – Birmingham Hippodrome

Reviewer: James Garrington

Music: Andrew Lloyd-Webber

Lyrics: Tim Rice

Director: Timothy Sheader

For over 50 years, Jesus Christ Superstar has been thrilling audiences, starting life as a rock album before the first staged version on Broadway. Since then, it has been performed at many venues around the world, often to great acclaim, and this particular version is not new – first appearing at Regents Park Open Air Theatre in 2016, and returning there twice more, with a stay at the Barbican, also playing in Chicago and a US tour before embarking on its current UK tour.

It’s done the rounds then – and by all accounts it should be pretty well honed by now, but what is apparent as the show progresses is that what works in one venue does not necessarily work in another, and here at the Hippodrome one or two staging and design decisions have created sightline issues from some parts of the auditorium. That is all to come as we begin though, and our first glimpse of Tom Scutt’s set accompanied by the ominous guitar riff gives us an impression of industrial dereliction, rusty girders and a cross collapsed on the floor. It’s a busy set, with ramps, steps and a variety of stuff everywhere, and it creates an enclosed, almost claustrophobic playing area on the large Hippodrome stage, and on the whole it serves well to keep things moving forward in a show that drives almost inexorably from start to end.

Copious amounts of smoke and haze serve well to mask different areas of the stage and work superbly with the outstanding lighting designed by Lee Curran. The show is sung through, and much of the vocal is delivered using hand-held or stand microphones which combined with the effects serves to create a feel that is sometimes almost concert-like, in among the parts that are more staged. Drew McOnie’s choreography is varied, with a nod to Bob Fosse at times and at others becoming energetic bordering on frantic – though not necessarily in the places you’d expect. There’s an awful lot of it too – too much in fact, and you find yourself wishing they’d just calm down and let the vocals carry things through.

Ian McIntosh is a superb Jesus, not only hitting the big rock numbers but adopting a more pop style to some of his songs with a ballad feel when needed. He has an appropriately fatalistic air as the end approaches, with a glorious rendition of his big Gethsemane number. Alongside him is the excellent Shem Omari James as an angry and frustrated Judas, emotionally torn with the realisation of what must be. On as Mary at this performance, Louise Francis gives a suitably tender air to her numbers. Ryan O’Donnell is in good voice as Pilate, with a sonorous Jad Habchi giving us an imposing Caiaphas.

A lot of the staging and decisions work nicely, so it’s a shame when they don’t. There’s an amusingly sly nod to Leonardo da Vinci in the Last Supper (though the effect loses some impact when you can’t see it all), and a microphone lead serves to good effect to despatch Judas. The make-up effects are realistic, and the lighting, haze and smoke focus your eye where intended and allow the cast to move around unobtrusively. Sometimes it’s not enough though, and you can’t help but wish for more decadence and excess in Herod’s court and a far camper performance from Timo Tatzber’s version of the man.

This may not be the best or most memorable production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but the base material has stood the test of time well and helps you to overlook some of the faults, with the cast working hard to keep things on track. Certainly, for audience members of a certain age, who can remember the original, this has the potential to take you back to the days of your youth. For people who may not be familiar with the show, it’s a decent enough way to get to know it.

Runs until 27 April 2024 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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