BWW Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, 21 July 2016
Has it really been two decades since that definitive Lyceum production of Jesus Christ Superstar? Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's collaboration is in residence at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre this summer, and it is a production the like of which I have never seen before.
Though much of the buzz has been around this show being like a gig, that doesn't mean it's a concert performance; and though some of the cast play instruments at points during the show, this is not an actor-musician show.
The use of microphones and the gig-like elements create a sense of urgency and a feeling of a mass movement. The susceptible crowd - worked up to fever pitch with Drew McOnie's intriguing choreographic concepts - are following a message they find attractive, but the man they are pinning their hopes on is flawed and all too human. Declan Bennett's Jesus is anguished from the off, strumming his guitar and rolling cigarettes like any two-a-penny Shoreditch artist, and lacking some of the confidence and charisma required to command the crowd, but from the start of Act Two his understandable fear and frustration take shape.
His "Gethsemane" is not the vocal tour de force that Steve Balsamo brought so beautifully to life 20 years ago; it's a grittier interpretation that connects with an earthy punch. From then on, his unhappy acceptance of his fate snowballs; when he appears bloodied and beaten in front of Pilate, he is literally and metaphorically broken. It's a powerful and painful moment.
His soulful vocals contrast beautifully with Tyrone Huntley's soaring performance as Judas. Indeed, Huntley is a revelation from the first notes of "Heaven on their Minds", a compelling and tortured presence, a sheer joy to listen to. His is a display of brilliance and one that should make him a much sought-after performer for years to come.
Anoushka Lucas is a wraith-like presence as Mary Magdalene, with a smoky jazz tone to her voice reminiscent of Amy Winehouse and complemented beautifully by some new orchestrations and a 10-piece band, situated high up on the set. David Thaxton is unrecognisable, clad from top to toe in black, and if he doesn't capture all of Pilate's dilemma and strike quite the right balance between ruthless ambition and troubled humanity, his singing and guitar-playing are both impeccable.
The conception of the priests is a delicious one - while their words and actions are evil, their unity and teamwork are emphasised through their musicianship and a touch of Sixties Motown-style choreography; Cavin Cornwall (Caiaphas) and Sean Kingsley (Annas) are terrific. They watch from above as the mob that once hailed Jesus turn on him, and tear him apart.
While the vocals and concept are enthralling, and there are some neat visual tricks that drew chuckles from the audience (look out for a brilliant sleight of staging at the last supper) there are elements of the drama that could do with a firmer hand from director Timothy Sheader. This might be the greatest story ever told, but in a theatrical presentation, a clearer narrative trajectory for the story and for the characters are required for a truly satisfactory piece.
Still, there's plenty to admire and plenty to think about in this breathtaking production; a night at the theatre in the park is always a treat. As darkness falls, the stage lights dim, but the power of this most moving of stories and most sweeping of scores never does.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs at the Open Air Theatre until 27 August
Picture credit: Johan Persson