JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until 27th APRIL.

April 22, 2024

images © Paul Coltas.

Fresh off of an impressive haul at last weekend’s Olivier Awards for Jamie Lloyd’s audacious restaging of Sunset Boulevard, it seems the high-concept spin on Lloyd-Webber is very much en vogue at the minute.

And yet, before Lloyd, Scherzinger and co redefined Norma Desmond and pals for contemporary theatregoing crowds, Timothy Sheader already had a critically acclaimed (and similarly Olivier-nabbing) crack of the lash with one of the Lord’s (no, not that one) earliest outings. Sheader and choreographer Drew McOnie’s 2016 resurrection of Jesus Christ Superstar was a fresh, stripped-back affair that struck a chord at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (not to mention mercifully banishing any memory of the ghastly, gaudy 2012 arena tour). Now, its acclaimed post-COVID second coming is on tour across the UK and beyond.

First, the foibles. Whilst Jesus Christ Superstar boasts what arguably remains one of Lloyd-Webber and OG lyricist Tim Rice’s finest scores, its earliness can still be felt in places; particularly in how it handles structure and narrative. Sure, it has fairly ubiquitous source material, but as per the likes of Joseph and to a lesser extent Evita, Jesus Christ has an awful lot to say and do, and is in quite the hurry to do it. And unlike those two outings, who each boast a singular, guiding musical narrator a la Evita’s ‘Che’ or Joseph’s, well, ‘Narrator’, Jesus goes without, leading to a first Act in particular that may prove quite the flurry or whirlwind for some modern or younger audiences.

Still, those familiar with the piece and its story (it is, after, a somewhat well-known tale…) will likely make up the bulk of audiences flocking to see it, which means the real measure of merit lies in how polished and executed a revisit this production proves to be.

It’s here where the praise comes thick and fast. Conceived as something akin to a rock concert by way of heavy industrial framing, this is a slick, moody and visceral reimagining. Tom Scutt’s metallic, minimalist staging cranks up around its one real focal point – an oversized catwalk-cum-crucifix that is used to great effect to pinpoint focus throughout. Lee Curran’s stark, invasive lighting, meanwhile, perhaps steals the whole thing, whether stabbing out into the auditorium during Jesus’ (Ian McIntosh) searing pleas to the Almighty during ‘Gethsemane’, or starkly backlighting an ominous throng of High Priests who march out on stage brandishing microphone staves.

“…a slick, moody and visceral reimagining…”

Dare it even be said that the roots of some of Jamie Lloyd’s conspicuous Sunset can seem to be seen and felt in places here, too. See the arms of Shem Omari James’ Judas dipped and dripping in liquid silver as he seals his betrayal of Jesus – a stain the character carries for the remainder of the show. Or the nondescript period of Scutt’s costumes – mostly devoid of colour, save for the suitably glitzy vaudeville camp of Timo Tatzber’s flamboyant Herod. Jolting, kinetic ensemble numbers, and McOnie’s pulsing, jolting choreography regularly tip some of its set pieces into the territory of feeling more like performance art or postmodernism.

It’s a production that is regularly distinctive and confident in its bare, raw individuality.

With its breakneck pace and little by way of handholding, a staggeringly strong company do great work in keeping the emotional resonance of the piece clear from the off. As touched upon, the first Act in particular pivots and shifts all over the place, and with so much storytelling and scene-setting going on on stage at once, there are occasions when it all threatens to become a little obtuse or impenetrable. Thankfully, there are killer vocals and authentic performances at every turn, and within roles that blitz through a kaleidoscope of human emotion in the blink of an eye, enormous credit must go to its leads for just keeping everything comprehensible and engaging.

Ian McIntosh is a stellar Jesus, raising the roof vocally, and grounding in particular what are quite brutally realised scenes of torture and crucifixion. Shem Omari James is in equally fine voice as a tormented, raging Judas, whilst understudy Louise Francis did a moving, soulful job in the performance reviewed as Mary. The love and support on stage from her company was palpable during a moving curtain call. Luke Street, meanwhile, delivered arguably the vocals of the night with a blisteringly effortless Simon, though Jad Habchi and Matt Bateman certainly give him a run for his money as riffing, belting rock demons of high priests.

Ian McIntosh is a stellar Jesus, raising the roof vocally, and grounding in particular what are quite brutally realised scenes of torture and crucifixion.”

With talent to spare on stage, this is one of Lloyd-Webber’s earliest and still most beloved offerings staged in audacious, individual style. It is a slick, bold and striking spectacle, and boasts a plethora of incredible musical theatre moments. Visceral, emotive and raw, if some of Jesus Christ Superstar’s age may be showing in terms of its breathless, erratic handling of character and narrative, then compared to the story that inspired it, it’s still practically a baby.

For fans and those familiar, this is a top-drawer, definitive outing for Jesus and pals. For everyone else, it is still a dazzling, masterfully-performed rock concert of musical delights, albeit one that may have you reaching for the cliffs notes in the interval.

Or, you know, the Good Book.

A decidedly individual restaging of a beloved classic. With plenty of bold, audacious style to make up for its breakneck, whirlwind substance, Sheader’s vision and a divine cast make this a visceral, heaven-sent revival.

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