Prior to its 1971 Broadway debut, rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar began life as a concept album. Forty-five years later, this new production directed by Timothy Sheader at the magical Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre fully embraces the history of the show – for better and for worse.
Visually, the show is a stunner, designer Tom Scutt’s set dominated by a huge cross on the floor and rusting scaffolding housing the visible band. Yet it’s the use of rock and music symbolism that really sets it apart. The actors mostly sing with handheld mics, wires trailing across the floor. Mic stands are used as staffs and spears. Judas eventually, literally, hangs up his mic in suicide. Jesus is often seen carrying an acoustic guitar. And with the crucifixion, he is tied up in mic cables before being raised up on a speaker stand. It’s a suitably visceral climax of throbbing lights, soaring guitars, powerfully expressive choreography (from Drew McOnie) and clever use of glitter.
The production also goes against the colourful hippy vibe of the film version. Here the monochromatic colour scheme depicts a gritty, realistic and cult-like group of disciples, which emphasises the narrative’s attempts to portray the human side of Jesus – there’s no resurrection, leaving us to ponder the true meaning of his death. It’s a dazzling, modern take on the show, even if the score is showing its age.
Yet there are issues with the show itself that this production doesn’t quite overcome. Predominantly, that’s a lack of a clear narrative owing to the lack of dialogue, which explores the bible story in abstract fashion. For some it’s an intriguing concept show, for others it’s a load of 70s hippy nonsense. And whilst we all know Lloyd Webber can write a tune, the through-sung nature of this show leads to short, staccato, recitative-like melodies and overuse of repetition that lacks flow. Alongside the clash of 70s genres, from glam-rock to gospel and folk, it doesn’t quite mesh together cohesively.
Sheader’s production doesn’t help itself. The design and costume scheme might be striking, but it’s too often unclear who specific characters are, making the loose narrative even more difficult to follow. And the singers aim for more of a pop-rock sound than musical theatre, which would sound ideal on a cast recording but their voices don’t translate to the stage. For instance, as Mary, Anoushka Lucas has a beautifully gentle, lilting voice but the role itself is bland and Lucas’ performance lacks distinction on the big stage. By contrast, David Thaxton’s Pilate feels like an overblown pantomime villain.
More so, the production is let down by Declan Bennett’s inadequate diction and power as Jesus. His mumbled rendition of “Gethsemane”, a key moment of the show, is sung whilst he plays guitar in a nod to his previous role in Once – a decision that not only constricts his movement but his emotions too. When he does eventually burst free, he throws down the guitar and kicks the mic stand like a petulant teenager, later thrashing around on the cross as if possessed. His depiction of Jesus has neither the poised calm of Christ, nor the superstar charisma to be a believable leader of this cult.
Thank Jesus, then, for Judas. Both the show and this production work best when Jesus is forgotten and instead we focus on his betrayer. Really, this is the story of his downfall and conflicting emotions as he wrestles with his (somewhat homoerotic) feelings for Jesus. It’s the deepest, most fascinating role with the best songs and is sung exceptionally by Tyrone Huntley, his vocals successfully blending rich soul and piercing rock with the conviction Lloyd Webber clearly intended. Jesus may have been the saving grace of humanity, but here it’s Judas who’s the real superstar of this spectacular, if inconsistent, production.
Watch: Jesus Christ Superstar runs at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until 27th August.