The final events leading up to the death of Jesus Christ are narrated through a gritty rock-opera, with a particular stress on the perspective of devil’s advocate; Judas Iscariot. Jesus, his disciples, and his followers navigate the pressures of being part of a religious revolution when the threats of those who oppose them loom so powerfully.
The set was a good mix of realistic and abstract. There was brass scaffolding high up on the stage which housed the band, and a giant crucifix that laid flat on the floor acting as a platform for actors. There were wooden steps upstage about a foot high which, again, added an extra element of levels to play with.
The birth of Jesus Christ Superstar could have almost never happened, as when it was first released as a rock concept album in 1970, it did not take off well with the English public. People at the time felt it was blasphemous and at best, controversial. The musical as we know it today only survived when it was staged in America the following year and completely took off among the alternative youth in the US. Any productions of this show- I believe- should always aim to embrace its controversial reputation and use it to push boundaries of what is expected on the stage. I would like to think that this particular production did a very good job of utilising this, as it was truly unlike any adaptation (or show) that I have ever seen before.
Right out of the gate the band were incredible. The orchestration completely encompassed the essence of the musical. It was dynamic, edgy, and certainly did justice to its rock-opera roots. ‘Heaven on their minds’ is an 11 o’clock number at the beginning of the show, so an insane amount of pressure lies in the voice of whoever plays Judas. Shem Omari James completely floored my expectations of what a voice could achieve when performing live, as not only was his voice incredible but he also appeared to hold very little back. This was almost confusing for me as I expected the singers to, understandably, be reasonable with their vocal choices since they have to sustain 8 shows a week. However, not only Judas, but everyone for that matter gave the best live vocal performances that I have ever heard. My thoughts on the choreography are not much different. The movement was not, in a conventional sense, ‘pretty’. It was jagged and in no shortage of boldness- a lot of the time I’d watch in bafflement thinking “what on earth am I seeing right now?”, but if a production of Jesus Christ Superstar does not make me think this, then it’s failed in its job of being socially transgressive- therefore I was impressed.
This is not to say, however, that I was overcome by the entire production. Timothy Sheader’s vision for the musical is not one I can fully get behind. There was giant stress in the musicality and choreography of the show which is absolutely right for a musical like Jesus Christ Superstar, but something that is also imperative to its success is the depth of its story- a depth I felt was not explored. Quite simply there was very little emotion. The cast's inability to act through song resulted in the absence of what should have been a very layered plot. I would venture as far as to say that while there was choreography and physical direction, there was no real acting. Every number, while they sounded amazing, was the same colour. This was extremely disappointing as I know Jesus Christ Superstar to be a musical of grit, feeling and inner-torment; and yet the actors had no onstage chemistry or signs of independent characterisation. I did not believe Mary loved (or even liked Jesus), and I did not believe Judas had met Jesus more than once- let alone known him for years. I did not believe Herod or Pilate’s threats, and I did not believe Judas was at all bothered about ending his own life. This being said, the lack of animation worked at some points- particularly for the Priests. The Priests are meant to be fairly stern and serious anyway, so their often blank expressions actually did help to convey a cold and uncaring group of people.
Speaking of the Priests, their staging, their choreography, their characters were actually the only cast members whose performances I think were flawless. Everything about them was frankly brilliant. They had dark grey costumes and clutched long golden staffs, their default position was to stand with their arms out in a bent T-pose which allowed them to appear less human and almost more robotic. I do not know if it was purposeful but the Priests constantly standing in a position that resembled the cross felt like a symbol of Christ’s impending downfall. And speaking of symbols, something I did love about this show was the abundance of foreshadowing. During various parts of the production, aspects of the set were cleverly lit to resemble the shape of a crucifix as they loomed ominously in the background of whatever was happening. In the number of ‘Hosanna’, Jesus falls backwards into the crowd where they carry him as a dead weight with his arms spread, which I believe was a brilliant parallel to how he is later pulled off the cross in the same manner. While the musical was not rich with acting, it was certainly filled with subtle nods of foreshadowing which I found incredibly pertinent.
There were, thankfully, moments within the show that did display brilliant story-telling (scarce as they were). ‘Gethsemane’ was a show-stopper and had me sitting with my mouth completely open. Ian McIntosh who plays Jesus had proved he had brilliant vocal range in previous numbers, but it was only in ‘Gethsemane’ I truly felt he was embodying the conflicting emotions of the character. This was the Jesus I wished I got to see throughout the duration of the show. The same goes for King Herod who was played by Timo Tatzber: his number was so full of depth and character, not just from him but from all members of the ensemble, that I found myself wishing that this is what the rest of the show had been like.
I do not have much more to say on this production apart from the fact that, at times, it hit the nail on the head, and at others it completely missed the point. For example, throwing golden glitter into the air every time Jesus was whipped may have been a stylistic choice, but it completely cheapened the harrowing impact that the lashing was supposed to have. The same goes for the self-destruction of Judas. His distressing death is meant to completely slap you in the face, but throwing a microphone off a balcony as a symbol for hanging just felt like a lazy get-out.
I’d recommend this show to anyone who knows and loves the music, this production certainly does it justice. I cannot say, however, that I recommend it to people who love the show for its narrative depth, as unfortunately while it was impactful to listen to, it was not so impactful to watch.
4 stars out of 5