Timothy Sheader's magnificent and vital production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1970s rock musical opens in Regent's Park
“You can rock the critics if you try”
Note: This is the first of three reviews at the time of writing of Timothy Sheader’s ground breaking and exhilarating production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Open Air in 2016.
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 Bennett) and his followers will attract the wrong sort of attention and cautions about Jesus’s 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’s 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.
I’m booked to see it again before it closes on 27th August. These brilliant shows are proving an expensive habit!
Heaven On Their Minds
What’s The Buzz
Strange Thing, Mystifying
This Jesus Might Die
Simon Zealotes / Poor Jerusalam
Everything’s Alright (Reprise)
I Don’t Know How To Love Him
Damned For All Time / Blood Money
The Last Supper
Pilate and Christ / Herod’s Song
Could We Start Again, Please?
Trial by Pilate / 39 Lashes
Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Choreographed by Drew McOnie
Director: Timothy Sheader
Choreographer: Drew McOnie
Designer: Tom Scutt
Musical Supervisor: Tom Deering
Lighting Designer: Lee Curran
Sound Designer: Nick Lidster for Autograph
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes with an interval
Closed on 23rd September 2016
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
London NW1 4NU
Tube: Baker Street
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre on 21st July 2016