Over forty years after its West End debut, we can now view Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera without the religious protests that overshadowed its premiere and judge it purely on merit as a piece of musical theatre.
Before this production at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, the most recent revival was the arguably ill-conceived 2012 arena tour that saw Ben Forster cast as Jesus via a TV talent competition. Despite having Tim Minchin in the role of Judas, it drew snitty criticism for the stunt casting of DJ Chris Moyles as Herod.
If that production was overblown, here, director Timothy Sheader has stripped things back to a more intimate show that concentrates on the visceral power of the piece. With a cast dressed in modern street clothes of hoodies and trainers, Tom Scutt’s multi-level industrial-style set, and Drew McOnie’s outstanding choreography, this is very much a Superstar for the modern day.
There are still one or two drawbacks, however. For all the efforts to bring the show kicking and screaming into 2016, some of the music does sound dated. And Declan Bennett as Jesus takes a little while to assert himself. He lacks charisma early on (bit of a drawback for the son of God), almost to the point of anonymity — and only really imposes himself on the role as the drama unfolds and people conspire against him.
Elsewhere in the cast, Tyrone Huntley is quite outstanding as Judas. Following turns in The Book of Mormon and Memphis, he is establishing himself as one of the UK’s great musical theatre voices. Jazz singer Anoushka Lucas as Mary brings poignancy and emotion to her big numbers I Don’t Know How to Love Him and Could We Start Again, Please? Two songs that demonstrate Lloyd Webber’s gift for crafting a melody.
It’s superbly staged throughout. Particularly powerful was the “heal yourselves” sequence after which lit crosses are brandished like light sabers, and a visually stunning moment where the apostles form themselves into a Leonardo Da Vinci Last Supper tableau.
And then there’s the crucifixion. As I was coming out, I heard a woman remark that she thought it was “unnecessarily gory”. I’m not quite sure what she was expecting from a story about a bloke who’s lashed and then nailed to a cross, but for me the climax was deeply moving without being overly sensational.
It’s not perfect be any means — I found the use of handheld microphones rather than radio mics and the strapping on and off of guitars a little distracting — but there’s a lot more good than bad and it certainly shows that Lloyd Webber and Rice’s work has largely stood the test of time.
Jesus Christ Superstar is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 27 August