As a non-Christian, I was intrigued as to whether this resurrection of Jesus Christ Superstar would be my cup of tea. The musical was originally released as a concept rock album by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, before making its first appearance on stage in 1971. The story is based on the gospel’s account of the final week in Jesus’s life. It was originally commissioned by David Land, who briefed the boys to write anything, with just one request: to steer clear of the Bible. So the whole production was controversial from the outset.
In its 45th anniversary, the musical takes to the outdoors for the first time at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. When I first arrived, I was taken aback by the beauty of the construction. Nestled in the corner of Regent’s Park sits a crescent amphitheatre, with a stage backed by tall, leafy trees. Vines cascade down the sides, trailing over the quirky little bars around the outer perimeter and to the side of the theatre is another seating area with picnic benches and an outdoor BBQ. It was the perfect setting for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most spiritual work.
Once everyone had taken their seats, we were serenaded with an ultra-cool guitar solo from the top of the construction, setting the rocky atmosphere for the rest of the musical. As the rest of the band kicked in, the ensemble entered through the wings and stoically infiltrated the stage. Rather appropriately for such a divine musical, they looked like they had just stepped out of All Saints in their washed-out, ruched trousers, cowl neck t-shirts and loose hipster hoodies. Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered what footwear Jesus might wear in modern-day Britain, the answer is a pair of adidas trainers.
In an off-beat Busby-Berkeley style, the ensemble surround Jesus (Declan Bennett) and bow down gracefully as the singing begins. Jesus is portrayed as an introverted, dare I say, meek character with soft vocals. It was strange at first that he didn’t look up and connect with the audience, but in some ways that only served to increase his exclusivity and contrast with his laboured performance of ‘Superstar’, when he finally opens up and actually jerked some audience members to their feet for a pre-emptive standing ovation (probably more for the sheer effort he put in than the actual vocal performance).
Mary, played by Anoushka Lucas, a soulful jazz singer, meanwhile echoed Jesus, again playing it a little too cool with the audience but making her mark with the rendition of the famous ‘I don’t know how to love him’. Her sand-blasted vocals are really lovely if you close your eyes to avoid the lack of stage presence. But it was the jealous Judas (Tyrone Huntley) who was clearly the crowd’s favourite, giving it his all with an authentic, lung-busting gravelly performance. His rendition of the song, ‘Judas’s Death’, was absolutely heart-wrenching and brought out the goosebumps accordingly.
But it wasn’t just the lead performers who made a hearty contribution. The rest of the crew were also extremely well cast, Will Burton and David Grindod especially, along with others who deserve a mention for their powerful vocal performances; Caiphas (Calvin Cornwall) and Annas (Sean Kingsley) who punctuated the action with their mesmersingly hip but domineering vibe. The score itself is a tumultuous ride of angry, fast-paced rock numbers, contrasted by more soulful and gentle moments of sweet 1970s pop sprinkled with a little funk. The transitions can be quite blunt, but it was an effective way of keeping the audience’s attention. This is definitely one of Lloyd Webber’s more addictive scores and I caught several people singing on the way out.
The choreography by Olivier award-winning Drew McOnie worked seamlessly with the set production which features a two storey open stage with a horizontal cross/walkway between the two sections, very much in keeping with Lloyd Webber’s original vision of a simple production and is suited to the rawness and simplicity of the work itself. During the last supper scene, the cross is used as the table and the apostles move themselves into position, creating an inspired still-life scene while the rest of the cast were choreographed to make full use of the stage. Their movements were urban and dramatic, accentuated by their street-style costumes while lighting (Lee Curran) took into account the sunset of the evening performance and the transition from day to night.
When Judas goes to collect his payment he bathes his hands in silver paint and exits the stage dripping in the precious metal (which at that time is said to have been more valuable than gold), and when Jesus is stoned by the people he’s lashed with golden glitter, turning what could have been a gory scene into a camp riot. Even if you feel dissuaded by the Christian title, you can take comfort in the fact that Jesus’s right to the holy trinity is never wholeheartedly confirmed, making it more open for your own interpretation. And there are so many wonderful surprises to the production that ultimately you will find plenty to admire from this powerful, fast-paced and dazzling resurrection. Amen.
Jesus Christ Superstar at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 27th August 2016. Production images by Johan Persson. For more information and tickets please visit the website.