NODA Review - Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
As every fan of the glitzy world of the musical knows, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ began life as a form of concept album (remember those, vinyl fans?!) before making its way onto the stage in the 1970s. Of all of Lloyd Webber’s early works, it is one of his more meaningful and interesting pieces, given an extra spark by Sir Tim Rice’s witty and intelligent lyrics. It’s a show I know very well, having directed a couple of productions myself and appeared in many more besides and it provides the opportunity of a solid base for a production team to add their own very individual stamp. A story rich in narrative incident, weighty symbolism and a solid thematic edge, the sung-through nature of the enterprise lends it an extra layer of respectability and the pulsing ‘rock opera’ score makes heavy demands on musicians and performers alike. I therefore settled into my seat with anticipation at the Hippodrome to see how Emma Cook and her team would approach the material.
The first thing of note to mention was the triumph of the set design: the audience were presented with a very visual representation of the show’s themes of religion, sacrifice and redemption with a prominent cross on the floor with uplighting concealed within. The scaffolding at the rear of the stage allowed for different levels, adding depth to the proceedings on stage. The overture pulsed into life while a rather peculiar light show dazzled the empty stage: I think I would have liked to have see some of the leading characters introduced at this point before the opening number but it wasn’t to be unfortunately. Costumes for the show were cleverly chosen to give a contemporary feel to the show but at the same time, managed to give the feeling of also being timeless, which worked very well indeed. The uniformly monochrome / shades of grey approach to the outfits on stage was a lovely thread running through the production, with the splashes of colour afforded by a scarf, a bandana or a neckerchief standing out as a result. I was less convinced by the opening flurry of choreography as the cast assembled for ‘Heaven on their Minds’: rather more ‘S Club Seven’ than seventh heaven for me. It seemed a bit bolted-on somehow, far too fussy and somewhat redundant. I wasn’t convinced at all but then I find the show enough of a draw on its own merits rather than needing any extraneous waggling about to catch the eye for no good reason - I also realise that I’m probably very much on my own with that opinion too, so we’ll move swiftly on...
As our two main protagonists were introduced, the audience knew immediately that it was in very safe hands. Chris Stott as Jesus brought a deft and gentle physical presence to the role and certainly managed the vocal demands of the score in style. Joel Brown was a gloweringly effective Judas, giving great strength of character to the role and a magnificent earthy power to the vocals: this was the standout performance of the night for me. In Jesus and Judas we had the contrasting forces of soaring, airy idealism and a more heavyweight and worldly pragmatism: a perfect mix as expressed in the characterisation and vocals of both performers. The show succeeds or fails depending on the relationship between the two leading men and fortunately, this particular production struck gold.
Given the nature of the story, the male voice predominates in this musical (Jesus, Judas, Apostles, Pilate, Priests... the New Testament isn’t renowned for its gender equality) leaving Mary as the sole female voice in the principal line-up. Fortunately, Victoria Brown had a great stage presence and brought a depth of understanding and sympathy to her characterisation. Lovely vocal work too, bringing an intensity to ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ which was heartfelt and honest. Martin Cook as Simon and Callum Roberts as Peter led the way very forcefully as the chief disciples, Martin in particular giving a very intense and focused ‘street’ interpretation of the character which was in keeping with the general milieu. The Priests I found less convincing however: although nattily attired in matching jackets and ties, both Ciaphas and Annas were both a little underpowered in the vocal department which had a deleterious impact on their ability to display the necessary gloomy authority their roles demand. Pilate was a suitably anguished and sympathetic figure in the hands of John Spooner who also brought an impressive air of authority to the character. I think I would have preferred a little less of the ‘Rex Harrison’ sprechstimme approach to the vocals however: I did feel that balance between expressing the emotions of the character and - for want of a better expression - keeping to the tune was a little off kilter, resulting in Pilate’s musical numbers coming over as heartfelt recitatives rather than songs in their own right. That said, this didn’t have a negative impact on either the characterisation or the broader sweep of the narrative.
The company had obviously been well drilled and gave a number of very impressive displays throughout the show, always staying in character and helping to push the show along at a good pace. I did feel that there was quite a bit of ‘choreography for choreography’s sake’ at times but then that’s probably my inbuilt prejudice coming out! This is one of a number of shows that, if handled well, can eschew the need for dance routines and excessively mannered stage movement. The punchy narrative and it’s thematic underpinning mean that for me, the show is quite able to stand as a musical exploration of character and intent which doesn’t need the usual stagey extras bolted on. However, as I’m aware that nobody else in the audience on the evening I attended would agree with that sentiment, I shall belt up as there were a number of set pieces and impressive moments peppered throughout the show which came across very well. Having said all that, Herod’s moment on stage demands something of the vaudevillian gusto that can be provided by a touch of the old razzle dazzle and that was provided in spades in this production! Elliot Sale as Herod brought a wickedly Mephistophelean glee to the role and burst onto the stage with his dancers quite marvellously. The dancing was pin-sharp and the routine was a masterclass in combining music and movement to make a point.
Act One bounced along at an impressive pace and the flow of movement on stage was well managed throughout. I did feel that at times, Judas was a little sidelined in the stage blocking but Joel’s darkly smouldering presence meant that he was impossible to overlook. The scene in the Temple was very well done and Jesus navigated and controlled the crowd scenes effectively. The Last Supper which kick-starts the second half is always treated in a rather over reverential fashion which seems to work against the mordant humour of Tim Rice’s lyrics (the apostles’ attitude should for me be expressed in stark contrast to Jesus’ foreknowledge of the events to come) but there is no denying Chris Scott’s impressive performance of Gethsemane: a taxing song which he handled very well. The Trial by Pilate scene worked well too and the visceral charge of the 39 lashes was given the direct and bloody treatment it demands. Similarly, the impressive crucifixion was a technical triumph and was a bold statement. I wasn’t altogether convinced with the staging of the iconic Superstar number which is sandwiched between these two scenes however. Joel’s vocals certainly impressed but Judas wasn’t enough of a driving force on stage physically to really propel the scene and for me, something of the crazed delirium of the scene was lost as a result. It can’t be denied that it impressed the capacity crowd at the Hippodrome nonetheless and the standing ovation which greeted the finale spoke for itself. When a full house rise to their feet as one to express their appreciation, there’s probably no better valediction a production could hope to receive.
The rock orchestra was tightly controlled by Helen Clarkson and the music moved at a steady and insistent pace throughout. This show is a ‘tough sing’ for the performers - and the sung-through nature of the rock opera takes no prisoners - and the whole company is to be applauded for a strong showing here. There were a few ‘modern’ touches which for the most part worked well (the iPhones and iPads I could have done without however and I wasn’t sure what the curious luminous body paint was about either) and didn’t detract from the timeless and universal nature of the story. The set looked great and provided a practical arena to explore the show’s themes clearly and effectively and the technical support from lighting and sound provided that often overlooked extra dimension. If I had one very big gripe about the show, it came at the very end of the evening: I really would have liked to have seen Jesus return in a less blood-spattered and more beatific condition to suggest his resurrection. Having said that, Emma Cook’s decision to present Jesus as bloody yet unbowed at the show’s finale went down terribly well with the audience and it’s always nice to see something different and have one’s expectations challenged.
This was a very impressive production which scored on many levels, providing a packed house with a solid and worthwhile evening of musical entertainment of the very highest standard. There was an obvious passion on display on stage from the entire company and the talents of the cast, thoughtful direction and solid musical support made for a first class evening at the theatre. My sincere congratulations go to all at the Hippodrome for giving Stuart and myself - and a full house of enthusiastic theatregoers - an evening to remember.