THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Jesus Christ Superstar
Amazing it took them this long. This stripped down ensemble show with key outdoor scenes and the energy of a rock gig is of course a perfect match for the Open Air Theatre, famous for its al-fresco performances under a darkening sky. This revival reminds us what a classic this show has become and director Timothy Sheader and a top class creative team have reinvented it for a new generation, giving it a modern sensibility without losing its essence.
At its inception in 1971 it broke new ground. It was initially a chart topping double album, featuring some great rock musicians, and then one of the first great rock musicals, with a score which blended grinding guitar sections, rousing chorales and lilting melodies. Rice's intention was to tell the story of Christ's betrayal and death using a modern vernacular and accompanied by pop music. It captured the zeitgeist in the era of flower power and revolution. It was also sung-through and its concision as a musical should be a model for others to follow.
Central to Sheader's re-invention of the piece was to hire designer Tom Scutt and choreographer Drew McOnie, both rising stars. McOnie's moves steal from hip-hop and everywhere else but always draw the eye.
Scutt's set is a rusty two storey scaffold evoking both industrial grime and rock gig and it is dominated by a giant catwalk in the shape of a crucifix which at one stage perfectly doubles as the table for a witty tableau vivant of The Last Supper. Sceptres are upended as mics and the many inventive uses of glitter will delight any party animal. The costumes and the 'look' of this handsome cast is also achingly trendy. The beards are very Shoreditch and the chic street clothes in various hues of grey and brown are like hip hop Armani. It will also give a younger audience major trainer envy.
A greatly experienced cast, all at the top of their game, are molded into a perfect ensemble by Sheader. Olivier winner David Thaxton, in fine voice, is a standout as Pilate, in black eye makeup and biker gear. Tyrone Huntley, channeling Michael Jackson at times with a great falsetto, brings a depth of soulfulness to Judas which is utterly compelling, a performance of great range and subtlety. Cavin Cornwall as Caiaphas slithers like a male Grace Jones and Peter Caulfield commits acting grand larceny with his stunning entrance as Herod. His great number, where he taunts Jesus, is written in the style of a jaunty rag and then it degenerates into a tantrum – for this he is resplendent in gold lamé hot pants.
The standout ballads in the show belong to Mary Magdalene (the love interest, in case you don't know your Bible). Here, Anoushka Lucas melts the audience to tears with the unaffected simplicity of her rendition of 'I Don't Know How to Love Him'. It's a small part and a stunning song (did ALW ever write better?) and she mines it fully. She is a great talent and one to watch.
Declan Bennett has charisma in spades and the dramatic intensity needed to play Jesus but, in a cast this vocally brilliant, his singing does get outshone. Nevertheless, as he proved in Once, he can play a mean guitar and he does so again here in 'Gethsemane'.
Sheader's great work here reinvents this piece for a young audience and this must have life after autumn sets in.