After the success of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1968, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice once again turned to The Bible for inspiration for their next project. Starting life as a concept album, Jesus Christ Superstar was a departure from the style of their previous work, being more of a rock opera than a traditional musical. It spawned two hit singles and a film.
A retelling of the final days of Jesus Christ, from his entry to Jerusalem to his death by crucifixion, the story is narrated by Judas, portrayed in a much more sympathetic light than in the gospels, and explores the psyche of both Judas and Jesus, which was also not present in the gospels.
At the time, particularly in the US, the production shocked due to its perceived blasphemous content, and as such received very mixed reviews when it first hit Broadway. Despite that, it remains one of LLoyd Webber’s most enduring and popular musicals, reaching a new generation through TV talent shows, and large scale productions featuring popular celebrities such as Mel C, Tim Minchin and Chris Moyles.
This show provides quite a challenge for an amateur company; requiring the leads to not only be extremely strong singers with a large range, but also able to portray the characters and retain the power of the story without the aid of dialogue. The ensemble also faces a tough sing, with some difficult harmonies. There are also quite a few set difficulties, particularly in the final crucifixion scene, which, though it did not feature in the original show, has become more common in modern day productions.
So yes, it’s a tough show for both cast and creatives, and director Matthew Prince and his team should be extremely proud of their achievements with this production.
As befitting a rock opera, the show was backed by a 10 piece band under the excellent musical direction of Maragret De Valois, who, with her cast, achieved one of the strongest collective vocal performances I have seen outside of the West End.
The staging was very creative, making the most of a flat space, as there is no raised stage, tabs or wings space at the Bridewell. Though it is not really much of a dancing show, choreography by Ruth Sullivan was simple, but visually effective.
The set was basic, saving complicated scene changes, but no less effective for that. Staircases and moveable cubes allowed the cast to move between the different scenes without complicated, time consuming scene changes. It also served to give the production height and depth, which stopped it looking static.
I loved the muted colours of the ensemble costumes, in a modern day "hippy" style, that contrasted nicely with the stronger, more period specific costumes of the principles. Congratulations to set and costume designer Beth Morris on her achievements in both these areas.
Lighting designed by Max Blackman was extremely clever, using spots and moving, flashing lights to create very dramatic effects.
Sadly as is often the case with amateur shows, the sound levels weren’t sometimes all they could be; some solo vocals were drowned out in the louder numbers, which made following the story quite difficult in places and which was a real shame when you have such a talented cast.
Matt Cameron as Jesus was wonderfully understated, radiating calm and serenity in the face of an increasingly hysterical crowd, which turns from extreme love to extreme hate, and the final crucifixation scene was also nicely played, avoiding histrionics to make a subtle, moving performance. He also sang strongly, hitting high notes with apparent ease, and with the confidence of a pop star.
Robert J Stanex plays the tortured Judas with great empathy, allowing the audience to share in his growing fear for his closest friend, his agony over his betrayal and eventual breakdown. The sparkly title track was also a highlight, with pitch perfect, gospel style vocals.
High priests Caiaphas and Annas, played by Alex Dee and Adrian Hau were suitably sinister as the antagonists plotting the downfall and execution of Jesus, again moving through some difficult harmonies and large ranges with apparent ease.
Jo Eggleton as Mary Magdalene was one of the standout performers. Every word was clear and sharp and she came across wonderfully as Jesus’ most loyal and only female disciple. I Don’t Know How To Love Him, one of the best known songs in the show, was extremely moving and beautifully sung.
There were also some great cameo performances. David Walker-Smith as the tortured Pilate, Nat Hook as Peter and Matt Hudson as Simon all gave strong and moving portrayals. However, my favourite cameo performance has to be Siobhan McConnon as Herod. It was an unusual touch to have a woman playing the part of Herod, even more so to style that character as an overblown '80s Madonna, complete with comical cone boobs, with a backing troupe of dancers in Relax T-shirts and '80s aerobic wear; but she carried it off with aplomb and it worked.
Minor technical issues aside, this was an excellent, innovative production that all involved should be very proud of. Judging by the enthusiastic standing ovation at the end, I am not the only audience member that thought so.