Forget Jesus, it's Judas who's the Superstar of this vigorous yet somewhat half-conceived revival
Looking back on the original Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had hated the production, commented that he and Tim Rice had created a musical so open to individual interpretation that “no production of Superstar in the rest of the world was the same”, stating that he had had “a baptism of fire by a kaleidoscopic gaggle of directors.” Since 1971 the world has been treated to a wide range of Superstars that have each attempted their own commentary and take on this rock retelling of the final week in the life of Jesus Christ with mixed results.
The Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's new production is no exception. As it's directed by Tim Sheader, of course there's a concept, and it's one that almost works, serving the piece better during the second act and takes some time to come together. Rather than act as a current political commentary (I was half expecting a Boris Johnson-esque Messiah leading the disenchanted who turn against him as his fate is sealed by a kiss from Michael Gove) Sheader speaks on a wider level about the nature of fame and the fickle fan base that's quick to turn on their idols.
Utilising the outdoor space the production harnesses a festival vibe that flits between feeling like Kanye West at Glastonbury and your odd Uncle dancing at Lattitude. There's enough smoke and mirrors, or should I say glitter and fire, to dazzle the audience throughout the bigger moments, but it's not until the second act where the sun goes down that the production really comes together, leading to the inevitable conclusion as the microphone stands become the crucifix, and what was once fun and games becomes deadly.
As each number is performed consciously into a microphone detached from the action the storytelling suffers. There's little eye contact or connection between the cast, each song becomes an indulgence that's never used to move the narrative or create any form of relation between the characters. The stage is kept alive by Drew McOnie's pulsating and free-flowing choreography that captures the mass mentality of the crowd and harnesses the divine energy required to rouse and stir as the production hurtles from one number to the next constantly picking up steam. Blending elements of hip-hop, contemporary and classical, McOnie manages to find a rhythm that helps the tried and tested numbers feel fresh whilst at the same time never overwhelming the stage with too much clutter – I tip my crown of thorns to anyone who can effortlessly choreograph the 7/8 section of “Heaven on Their Minds” with such dexterity.
In drop-crotch trousers, baseball hat and a half-finished hair cut, Declan Bennet's Jesus is petulant, introvert and haunted. He struggles vocally in the first half, and is no match for Lloyd Webber's driving and dramatic score. An enigmatic character, he finds no joy in the role, giving zero cause or reason as to why he could ever command a loyal following. You could never imagine him enjoying a parable or finding warmth in the world of God, instead he refuses to look Judas or Mary in the eye, finding more of a relationship with his microphone and his fags. Vocally he saves himself for “Gethsemene” which is so heavily back-phrased that it's practically a deconstruction, and when the money notes and the emotion finally get unleashed it's self accompanied and over produced, feeling like musical theatre week on 'The X Factor'.
There's excellent support from David Thaxton's Pilate who commands the stage and whips his microphone lead like a demon, never phased by his decision to seal Christ's fate as demanded by the people. Cavin Cornwall's Caiaphas and Sean Kingsley's Annas find humour as they lead a Four-Tops-esque villainous troupe, one-upped in the camp stakes only by Peter Caulfield's King Herod, played as a mix between Taboo and The Rocky Horror Show. Anoushka Lucas finds a grass-roots warmth in Mary that's both folksy and refreshing, delivering the big song with appropriate warmth and a lack of histrionics that serves the material well.
But the real Superstar of the evening is Tyrone Huntley as Judas who has an exceptionally powerful voice that is finely matched against the notoriously difficult score and is ideally suited to his vocal proficiency and gymnastics. Unlike Jesus, he's ever present with the audience - he makes that necessary connection and allows you to tap into his haunted and conflicted conscious that proves to be the real heart of the piece. A finely nuanced and exceptionally delivered performance around whom the production can really rally.
Whilst it's not exactly the second coming, it is a reminder of Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's top drawer material, and thanks to a number of fine performances, leaves you reconsidering a musical theatre classic.
What the Press Said...
"Superstar’s youthful potency and its Christ-like radicalism - courting sacrilege, achieving an essence of spiritual intensity - is reborn in the nick of time. Hallelujah!"
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Tyrone Huntley is brilliant as Judas, a young fanatic who is watchful and isolated right from the start...An expected and considerable pleasure that really rocks."
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
"The first half is something of a schlep, even if the lively ensemble, dressed in baggy grey street clothes, attacks each number with vigour. Yet in the second act, as we near the death of Jesus, the show bursts into magnificent life."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard