Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Director: Timothy Sheader
This 1970s hit from musical theatre gods Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice does not cover the happiest of tales. And though it is usually touring somewhere in the world, whether it would have aged well was in doubt.
However, the reimagining of the show by director Timothy Sheader, first performed in the open air at Regents Park, makes for a truly remarkable and memorable night at the theatre.
Jesus Christ Superstar is more of a rock opera than a musical of the kind that has enjoyed a recent resurgence. There is no talking – and no rapping – but lots of intense electric guitar music and powerful vocals. Sheader based it on the bestselling album in which Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan was Jesus and it shows.
The lead singers are incredible. They have theatre chops rather than being a collection of celebrity names. And the musicians are deservedly given a spot on the stage rather than hidden in the orchestra pit.
The celebrity role is reserved for Herod, now often claimed as a camp, gay character and played to the hilt by (in the words of his website) national trinket Julian Clary. He arrives on stage resplendent in a vast gold cape, two metres wide and 10 metres long, revelling in power and presence. His taunting, ragtime number was delivered as only Clary could.
The story relates the last week of Jesus’s life when his ardent following upsets the priests and Roman authorities. Then, as the bible tells, Judas betrays him and, spoiler alert, he is crucified.
Costumed in loose hoodies and trainers, the ensemble open the show by storming the stage through the auditorium. Then begins the hallmark of this production – their symphony of intense, pulsating, jerky, repetitive modern dance movements choreographed by Drew McOnie. It was mesmerising to watch and summoned up the fervour of the crowd which even Jesus later admits is too much.
One of their number, on this night at least, Megan Bryony G, seems to do twice as much running around with her fast but precise full-body movements acting as a chorus to the inner life of the main characters.
But what of our main man? Ian McIntosh delivers presence without finery as Jesus, regularly borne aloft, crowdsurfing style, by his followers, and belts out his showstopper number Gethsemane to huge applause. He has a fantastic voice which is also showcased in his quieter songs as he wrestles with his terrible but glorious fate.
The quietest songs, however, are reserved for Hannah Richardson as Mary and are more pop than rock. You may recognise I Don’t Know How to Love Him, which brings out the best in her beautiful voice.
Shem Omari James as our villain, Judas, has some great numbers, and there are more talented vocalists in Ryan O’Donnell as Pilate and the high priests played by Matt Bateman and booming bass Jad Habchi. In a neat touch, their crosiers denote their high office and also have microphones at the base, so that they are ever ready to rock.
In common with many lyric-heavy shows, it is not always possible to discern every word and this made the start a little confusing, but, like opera, mood is all. The pop songs do show their age a little, being more middle-of-the-road in style, but the rock numbers are timeless.
The set is dark with an enormous prone crucifix dividing the stage with props providing moments of neon, gold and glitter. Expert lighting captures the moments of despair, threat, longing, pain and foreboding.
In short, it’s a dark story, brilliantly performed.
Runs until 30th September 2023