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A CurtainUp London Review
Jesus Christ Superstar . . .

"They think they've found the new Messiah. And they'll hurt you when they find they're wrong."
— Judas .. Lyric from "Heaven On Their Minds"
Jesus Christ Superstar . . .
Cavin Cornwall as Caiaphas and Nathan Amzi as Annas
(Photo: Johan Persson)
It was my absolute favourite musical of 2016, and I saw it twice at the Open Air in Regent's Park. I returned in 2017 and was a tad disappointed as I thought the choreography had lost some of its edge. But at the Barbican Theatre in 2019, it is as thrilling as ever.

What I was most apprehensive about, I needn't have been concerned, because the transfer to the indoor Barbican Theatre has worked well. The iron grid set and dominant cross is the same with the rock group and the band at different corners, and even some trees set up there to remind us of the park. What we lost in fireworks, literally flares, we have gained in spectacular lighting without having to wait for dusk.

On seeing the first time, it was the expressive choreography that blew me away and Drew McOnie is back in charge here. There is a new scene to do with Herod's excessively lush gold train when dancers cavort, their heads appearing from bloodied plates worn like ruffs, and their tunics spattered with blood. Are these the reminder of the cruel regime Herod ruled over and the Slaughter of the Innocents when he tried to get the predicted king killed? Or of Salome and John the Baptist?

The clearing out of the traders in the temple is brilliantly lit and designed with the sales of religious artefacts, multiple crosses, golden and lit. The scourging of Jesus too is spectacular and clever with each crack of the whip illustrated with a shower of silver and gold as the mob turn on their saviour.

We see Jesus under pressure to perform miracles and feel his exhaustion at trying to help so many.

The big new star for me is Sallay Garnett as Mary Magdalen. Her voice is clear and pure and she has some of the best tunes in the show. Dressed ornately in Turkish trousers and with many plaits, some piled on the top of her head, she looks Middle Eastern and as beautiful as she sounds. I liked Judas too. Of course Tyrone Huntley was a very hard act to live up to but Ricardo Afonso is strong as the man who starts with sincerity.

Caiaphas is back with his deep brown register, although with no sunglasses, and Nathan Amzi as Annas is also very strong with a great voice and presence. The priests and rabbis move exquisitely turning their pose with staffs into rock band. This time I liked Matt Cardle as Pilate who tried but not hard enough for Jesus to be pardoned. The bass guitar (Phil Donnelly) leads the rock numbers which are exciting.

Robert Tripolino as Jesus has a good singing voice although I believed more in Declan Bennett's quiet spirituality. This is a small quibble for the kind of show that I would jump at being asked to see again! Please will someone have the sense to transfer this to the West End? The production has proved that it can be as successful indoors so what are you waiting for?

For Elyse Sommer and Les Gutman's review of a New York production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2000 and the full song list go here.

Below My Original Review
Jesus Christ Superstar had an interesting start. It was first conceived as a stage show but was launched as a double record album in 1970. Evita too was launched in that way, with the music preceding the staging.

The stage show opened in New York at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on 51st Street in October 1971 with hugely opulent, psychedelic designs: a far cry from the simplicity of the Christian message. It came to London to the Palace Theatre in August 1972 in a stripped back production away from the extravagance of Broadway. With Paul Nicholas initially playing Jesus, the show ran for eight years and broke the record for a longest running musical, in the days before Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera.

Timothy Sheader's production at the Open Air in Regent's Park is exciting, brilliantly sung and choreographed and, best of all, unbounded by walls. On a fine summer's evening, the cast join us progressing through the audience and immediately I felt we were witnessing a joyous sect of enthusiastic and inspired youth. They are magnetic so that you want to be part of them. They make their way down to the stage dominated by a 35 foot cross on the playing area. Twin rusted metal structures shaped like giant box kites hold the orchestra on one, and the rock band on the other, and at lower levels allow the players to perform above the stage.

The overture sounds a little like Bernstein's but there's a mixture of jazz and rock with great brass from the orchestra. Besides his magnificent set, Tom Scutt's costume design looks comfortable and quasi Holy Land. They wear hooded garments, not modern day hoodies but with the Biblical sweep from the head covering, some wide Turkish trousers and sneakers, the colour palette soft greys and pale greens.

Judas (Tyrone Huntley) sings "Heaven on their Minds" setting up a Julius Caesar type scenario cautioning against the cult of personality, singing "You've begun to matter more than the things you say". Drew McOnie's choreography has the crowd covering their faces with one hand and the other arm is outstretched, the hand pushing away, "your followers are blind, too much heaven on their minds." When they bend down and throw up their arms repetitively the impression is of a kind of group ecstasy, a crowd mania.

Judas is always thinking about ways in which Jesus (Declan Bennet) and his followers will attract the wrong sort of attention and cautions about Jesus' relationship with a prostitute. Mary Magdalene (Anoushka Lucas)'s role is to calm and soothe Jesus in the pretty tune "Everything's Alright". This is countered by Judas criticising the cost of the anointing oil.

The entrance of the high priests, Annas (Sean Kingsley) confirms Judas's fears. The priests line up, standing above the stage, in dark designer stripes singing, "This Jesus Must Die" reiterating "He is dangerous". The Chief Priest has a magnificent stage presence, the deepest of bass registers and dark glasses enhancing his coolness. Cavin Cornwall is mesmerizing in the role. When their ceremonial staffs are upended to reveal microphones, we are in full swing rock concert mode.

The rhythmic "Hosanna" is the response from the crowd on Palm Sunday and sees Jesus held aloft, stretched out horizontally, supported by the outstretched arms of his disciples. Simon Zealotes (Joel Harper-Jackson) leads the revolt against the Romans with blue smoke flares and Jesus responds with reiterating his values "Poor Jerusalem" . Pontius Pilate (David Thaxton) is revealed from behind a Roman sculpted mask with scary eye makeup and his own guitar

As Jesus closes down the flurry of traders in "The Temple", the dancers again make this one of the most impressive scenes, with gold design and flashy materialism. The demands for miracles increase and Mary Magdalene sings probably the best known song from the show, "I Don't Know How To Love Him". Anoushka Lucas' phrasing is beautiful and it is emotionally affecting. Act One closes with Judas' deal with the priests to betray Jesus.

Act Two opens with a recognisable tableau of the famous painting of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. This scene talks about Jesus' leaving them and remembrance, "For all you care this wine could be my blood, for all you care this bread could be my body". He predicts, "One of you will deny me, one of you will betray me." "Gethsemane" illustrates Jesus' questioning the painful and suffering path on which he has been sent by his Lord.

As Judas betrays Jesus his hands and arms start to turn to silver, the metal spreading up his arms. Scenes follow from the Roman soldiers and with Caiaphas as the High Priest of Style. Peter (Phil King)'s denial will follow. Herod (Peter Caulfield)'s spectacularly over the top entrance with the longest golden train ever will remind you of the Pharoah's part as Elvis in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat".

We are instantly sobered by the re-appearance of Jesus, beaten and bloodied and the 39 scourging lashes are delivered with gold showers on each stroke of the flogging. The fickle crowd turn on Jesus and the ghost of Judas leads the jubilation as Jesus is nailed to the cross and the crucifix is raised.

Tyrone Huntley's Judas has scene stealing vocal strength and energy which contrasts with Declan Bennett's gentle and affecting Jesus. I felt Declan Bennett's portrayal was acted very well and has a charismatic depth. Of the support I liked Cavin Cornwall's Caiaphas best and David Thaxton's Pilate the least.

If our memories of theatre are visual, then this production will linger in my mind with its creative choreography and wonderful design. I wonder if it can be filmed and streamed from the Open Air? I know that producers will be queuing up to transfer this production to a longer run and of course the unpredictability of the English weather makes the out of door option unlikely, but I would hope they can keep the sense of open space created here in Regent's Park. It is the most magical setting with a stage backed by trees and fairy lights.





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PRODUCTION NOTES
Jesus Christ Superstar . . .
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Starring: Robert Tripolino, Ricardo Afonso, Sallay Garnett, Matt Cardle, Samuel Buttery, Cavin Cornwall, Nathan Amzi, Matthew Harvey, Tim Newman
With: Daniel Bailey, Bernadette Bangura, Robert Bannon, Cyrus Brandon, Melanie Bright, Georgia Carling, Dale Evans, Rosie Fletcher, Luke Hall, Simon Hardwick, Josh Hawkins, Dayle Hodge, Stevie Hutchinson, Cleopatra Joseph, Rachel Moran, Billy Nevers, Tinovimbanashe Sibanda, Elliotte Williams-N'Dure
Design: Tom Scutt
Lighting Design: Lee Curran
Sound Designer: Nick Lidster for Autograph
Choreographer: Drew McOnie
Musical Director: Ed Bussey
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Running time: Two hours with an interval
Box Office: 020 7638 8891
Booking to 24th August 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 10th July 2019 evening performance at The Barbican Theatre, Barbican Centre, Silk Street London EC2Y 8DS (Tube: Barbican)
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