JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
Palace Theatre, Manchester
Until Saturday 23 September 2023
Fifty-three years ago this October, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice released a musical concept album for a new rock opera inspired by the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in a bid to help secure funding for a full stage production.
The success of that concept album led to a staged concert production in the July of 1971 followed by the show’s full on-stage Broadway debut in the October of that year, a production that would help spark a controversial, cultural phenomenon.
Timothy Sheader’s reimagined production of Jesus Christ Superstar was first staged at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre during the summer of 2016, marking forty-five years since that original Broadway debut, and went on to win the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival the following year.
Lloyd Webber and Rice’s electrifying musical masterpiece is undoubtedly one of the greatest musicals ever composed, driven by a thrilling rock score, soaring ballads and razor sharp, stirring lyrics.
Sheader’s stripped-back revival frequently puts a fresh and invigorating spin on the revolutionary classic, boosted by Drew McOnie’s dynamic and expressive choreography and some hugely effective design elements. It is a raw, high-energy production infused with innovative touches and stage devices, though not every decision is a winner.
Perhaps the biggest issue is that the production expects the audience to be familiar with the material before coming into it. The modern dress aspects are often questionable and can make it difficult to distinguish exactly who is who in an era of religious status and hierarchy. There are no clear introductions or grandiose entrances here.
Gone are Jesus’ familiar long hair and white robe combo. Here, Jesus struts about in a hoody and a baseball cap, acoustic guitar draped across his back, with only a slightly crisper white t-shirt to differentiate him from the rest of the disciples.
Sheader’s staging makes frequent use of handheld microphones and floors stands, which gives the pieces an interesting semi-staged concert feel but can make things feel rather static as performers are often rooted to the spot.
Another unusual decision is to inject comedy into the entrances of Caiaphas, Annas and the High Priests, which has them performing a slick, Motown-style routine with their staffs-turned-mic-stands and takes away from the sinister nature of the characters and the text.
Thankfully, however, the vast majority of this thrilling revival is hugely effective and rattles along at a fine pace. The vocals are magnificent throughout and the live band give a crunching, high-octane rendition of the majestic score.
Ian McIntosh and Shem Omari James make short work of Jesus and Judas, respectively – undoubtedly two of the most vocally demanding roles in musical theatre – with effortless, soaring vocals filled with raw emotion and attack. It is a shame that the Gethsemane screams are clipped short and we don’t get the hear the elongated versions as McIntosh easily hits the notes. Hannah Richardson is wonderful as Mary and performs some of the show’s best-loved numbers with real warmth and passion. Superb vocals too from Ryan O’Donnell as Pilate, Jad Habchi as Caiaphas, Matt Bateman as Annas and the full ensemble.
Designer Tom Scutt and lighting designer Lee Curran frequently present a series of arresting, photo-worthy images and tableaux that perfectly complement Sheader’s stripped-back staging. The crucifixion scenes with the evocative lighting cutting through a darkened stage shrouded in thick clouds of dry ice are staggering.
It is a far cry from the traditional staging seen in the seminal 1996 Lyceum revival but this JCS proves a slick and nonetheless captivating production, inventively reimagined for a modern age, and paying fine tribute to the show’s original rock roots.
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes (approx.), including one 15-minute interval.
Final Performance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester: Saturday 23 September 2023
For more information, and to book tickets, please CLICK HERE.