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Jesus Christ Superstar review, Open Air Theatre

Photo: Johan Persson

Jesus Christ Superstar started with the music: a concept album from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, that led on to endless adaptations all facing the challenge of bringing this epic story (that ends in a crucifixion) to life.

This new production takes on that challenge with a real sense of excitement and energy, with fresh eyes and a stunning outdoor space to work with, and - a focus on that music that began it all.

After brilliant reviews including from critics where I wouldn't expect a positive reaction, I went in with perhaps dangerously high expectations, then came out with mixed feelings.

Where the show succeeds is in the musicality, the production values and Drew McOnie's choreography. There were so many clever touches throughout that made me smile with their simplicity and innovation: Judas' hands turn silver with the taking of his reward and his guilt, apostles pause into the Da Vinci Last Supper pose, and a microphone cord hangs in place of Judas himself.

There was unexpected humour from a bit of a boyband with Caiphas and co - their septres turning to microphone stands, swooning and swaying into the music. Sean Kingsley as Annas especially was brilliant with his slimy persona and over-the-top excitement at the task of stopping this supposed Christ - he reminded me of Timothy Spall and his energy was brilliant.

What didn't work for me was that the music, wonderful though it was, seemed to override emotion and storytelling. The musical opens with Heaven on Their Minds, my favourite song from the show, exploring Judas' anxiety and anger over the escalating situation. (Here, I should say, Tyrone Huntley is the absolute star of the show with an acrobatic soul voice like nothing I've heard before.) But, immediately I felt an unease that there wasn't enough going on behind the eyes - I struggled to believe what he was singing. Throughout the show Tyrone's commitment and conviction to the words did really come into play, giving a powerful, believable performance. But this lack of connection was felt elsewhere too, and made me think it was a directorial decision for a more gig-like event.

Tyrone Huntley as Judas. Photo by Johan Persson

One song where this felt really apparent was Mary Madgdalene's I Don't Know How To Love Him - a quiet moment of reflection and worry on the difficulties of love. The singing here from Anoushka Lucas was beautiful and a style I enjoy - little lilts and trills that brought a contemporary edge to the song, akin to artists like Birdy and Laura Marling. Yet without a sense of emotional connection with the lyrics, or with us as audience, it felt like Live Lounge does Lloyd-Webber. Watching on YouTube that'd be fine but in the theatre, it just felt jarring. Then, during Everything's Alright we have Mary trying to soothe and calm her lover, while singing right into his face with a handheld mic. Bit disconcerting.

It feels like director Timothy Sheader decided to make the show cooler in this throw-away style of singing, which I felt in Declan Bennett's performance too, but to the detriment of emotional connection. I think there is a middle ground between what was gone for here, and over-performed musicality (the problem with the arena version a few years back). To add that real sense of connection and intensity would have made this production even more electric, and I think though I enjoyed and was impressed by the production, this frustration kept me from truly loving it. I also think it's wrong to think you can't do connection and cool at the same time: you definitely can.

With this musical completely sung-through, many argue there's little space for character development and I'd agree with that to an extent, but I also think Webber's lyrics do allow for these moments of truth and complexity, asking difficult questions like should I love him, should I betray him, how do you cope with this most extreme of crisis. That unease and uncertainty is what makes these songs so brilliant - with little time they convey so much, and it felt a shame this wasn't felt in these performances, even if they were stunning to listen to.

Then we have Jesus himself. Declan Bennett plays a hoody-wearing hipster Christ, smoking rollies and swanning about knowing he's adored. I struggled to see how he could be so liked and followed, and often you see more of a transition in the character in productions - seeing someone formerly full of love and light pushed to breaking point. Here it felt more one-note, and like Bieber on a bad day. Still, for Gethsemane Bennett really shone. He might not have reached the big high notes but he performed it with energy and conviction, and it was clear that the guitar put him back into a comfort zone where he could excel.

Credit must go to the ensemble here, as they were involved in some of my favourite moments, and with McOnie's choreography they took us from jubilation to anxiety, with a consistent intensity and energy. They were also a huge part of Sheader's focus on fandoms and downfalls - how we build someone up to knock them down, and how easily the public can be swayed. When facing Pilate (brilliantly performed by David Thaxton) the crowd shouts "we have no king but caesar!" a line usually sung as a straight forward shout. Here, the line is exclaimed with an odd enunciation on Caesar that feels trance-like and robotic, the crowd doesn't know what they're saying and likely don't believe it, and that subtle nuance vocally with the pulsating, fist-thumping choreography felt really powerful.

As night descends and darkness falls, we have a stunning lighting state and an intensity onstage that's hard to take, and that's where the production really comes into its own. Jesus' bloodied body is more visceral than I've ever seen it done, but then we have touches of genius with 39 strikes of glitter which makes more sense and is more effective than it sounds. It plays on celebrity and show, and with the crowd crying out for suffering to heighten - it's a spectacle to behold that makes the story and its message feel contemporary and really hit home.

So, as problematic as I may have made it sound, this really was a powerful production that pushed the limits of what it could be: I would always rather a director try something new with a revival, even if not everything pays off. I feel like it could appeal to those who'd normally swerve musicals, and in the particularly perfect venue of Regents Park Open Air Theatre, I'd definitely recommend this. Don't expect emotional nuances but do expect an exciting, playful, powerful piece of theatre that stays with you.

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