Updated: Sep 21
Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber
Regents Park Open Air Theatre Production
Palace Theatre, Manchester
September 11-23, 2023; 1hr 50mins
(also Newcastle, Hull, Liverpool, Bradford, Sunderland, Sheffield, Llandudno, Blackpool)
The great thing about Jesus Christ Superstar is the music. The problem with Jesus Christ Superstar is the music.
Yes it’s cohesive, it’s symphonic - operatic even - in aspiration, operetta at the very least. And yet it’s trite, musically immature, and undramatic.
Superstar was born as a concept album, and you can tell. Prima la musica, as the old saying goes. It meant that when the youthful Rice and Webber managed to get the thing staged, no-one could mess with its musical shape and the pair wouldn’t be beholden to a director’s cuts, because the music was already a fully formed entity in the public consciousness. Clever.
But the songs (and it’s through-sung, so that’s the whole thing) don’t always do the job they need to do in a contemporary show. The setting can be awkward, the word choice naive, the plethora of musical full-stops, child-like. At times we’re in danger of feeling like we’re in 1970s America, rather than in biblical Jerusalem. But director Timothy Sheader is this production's salvation.
The voices on show are epic, befitting a Passion. Shem Omari James creates powerful unease as Judas, Hannah Richardson is beautifully tranquil as Mary Magdalene, and Ian McIntosh stuns as the main man. Having seen him as Galileo Figaro, the voice of Freddie Mercury in We Will Rock You, one couldn’t imagine a higher-profile gig. Yet here we are; if Jesus could sing, he’d sing like Ian McIntosh.
We join our crowd as the end approaches, Jesus already uneasy, and the show paints a human picture of him surrounded by people, a quiet storyteller rather than a great orator. The costuming in hoodie and trainers places him as an ordinary man. Incredible choreography, by Drew McOnie, turns a crowd of 14 into a thousand with arms and legs everywhere, excited by Jesus while he wrestles painfully with the foresight of his final days.
The choreography overall is spectacular, with a standout performance from Megan Bryony G interpreting all the big moments - from crazed leper to Jesus’s inner turmoil - into contemporary dance. It’s this kind of dance in solo and ensemble form that gives edge and meaning when the music lacks it.
There are powerful moments of incongruence between visual storytelling and music that hold real meaning, and inspired stage direction and design that does a similarly thoughtful job, with references even to the Da Vinci code (I’ll say no more – you have to see it).
The use of microphones to represent the figurative voices is brilliantly cohesive, and Judas’s death offers a moment of some weight. In a lighter moment, the inimitable Julian Clary as Herod camps it up in a brilliant but dark comedic fashion as the murderous Herod, with a line of foreboding Brechtian clowns.
Despite the original product being an album, there are allegiances to previous productions, and to the movie versions of 1973 and 2000. A major criticism from my companion was that Judas should have been central and on stage almost throughout. But this is a production for now, and maybe right now we don’t need another supervillain but rather a more central saviour; it's a Passion for our time.
The whole show is essentially a slow crescendo, building to the power of the final scene, the crucifixion, where the final power of Christ is unleashed and McIntosh shows us what he’s got. It could so easily become pantomine, and yet it’s incredible, glorious, gruesome, epic and biblical.
This is not a nice story, and it’s one we already know. But here it bears telling, beautifully, once more. While most of the characters are two-dimensional at best (because of course the majority of us know every detail of who’s who, and what’s going to happen, before we go in) Sheader’s Superstar gives us just that: the story of Christ as a man, the adoration and betrayal of crowds, the hysteria of love and hate, and Jesus as a central figure that we might even believe in.
More tour info and tickets here