BWW Reviews: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, Arena Tour, O2, September 21 2012
Expectation for this arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar has been high. Indeed, Andrew Lloyd Webber entered the stage during the bows to announce that this production is what he has been waiting for since he and Tim Rice created the show 42 years ago - a rock concert on the largest possible scale.
It is a shame that this version, debuting at the O2 Arena before a UK tour (and possibly a West End run) seems so vividly to prioritise concept over content.
Here, Jesus and his followers fight for justice against an oppressive regime - but this is a modern oppressive regime, and the new evangelists are Occupy protesters. Well, they're Occupy protesters as imagined by the right-wing press - all nose-studs and texting and Apple-branded electrical goods.
These freedom-fighters reminded me of nothing so much as The cast of Rent pretending to be the kids from Fame - great singers performing high-energy dance routines, but protesting the iniquities of the system, which nevertheless seems to have left them rather well-off.
Yet this alteration of setting doesn't transfer so well with the lyrics, which are still telling us that "Israel in 4BC had no mass communication" despite the protesters mobilising via Twitter, and that Jesus will just "die in the high priest's house" when Caiaphas seems to be something in the secret service (maybe? I wasn't quite sure, to be honest).
Incidentally, speaking of Caiaphas, it was good to see Peter Gallagher reprising the role he played so wonderfully in the Lyceum production back in 1996. In fact, all the "baddies" were pretty impressive - of course Alexander Hanson is always a treat (he played Pilate as a judge, stressed-out, sarcastic but with a modicum of humanity remaining), but the stand-out star of the show - by some distance - is Tim Minchin as Judas.
Minchin may not have a traditional musical theatre voice, nor even a typical rock voice, but he has wonderful power, emotion and expression, all of which came to the fore as he gave us a Judas obviously tormented and conflicted, always inviting empathy and thus enticing the audience to question what they think they know about this story.
The other big names fare less successfully. Melanie Chisholm is a decent enough performer but the breathy affectations she often employs in her pop work were on display here in full force; if you're a fan then she'll deliver, but if that technique isn't your cup of tea then it may grate.
Chris Moyles could be expected to do little more than he did with a role and a song that's always been comic relief; but this was amped up to the max as he played King Herod as a talk-show host, inviting viewers to ring in to vote on whether or not Jesus is "Lord or Fraud".
And Ben Forster, the winner of one of those phone votes, shows off fair vocal chops; and to give him credit, proved himself to be a more capable vocalist than I had given him credit for during the 'Superstar' series.
However, at the moment he still lacks some of the presence and charisma needed for a truly believable Jesus. The anger is on display throughout but rarely tempered with vulnerability prior to 'Gethsemane'; paired with some odd acting choices (possibly down to directorial vision) for this audience member at least the necessary engagement with his very human struggle was missing. Against a fascinating and thoughtful Judas, a stroppy, message-less Jesus ends up being significantly overshadowed - and unlikeable.
Towards the end, the modern parallels changed from Occupy to Guantanamo: Jesus was hooded and thrown into a bright orange jumpsuit as he underwent torture, at which point I completely lost the thread of whatever this show was trying to tell me - if it was trying to tell me anything in the first place.