Jesus Christ Superstar by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber with its rock opera concept is to me always the odd one out in their canon of musical works as nothing that followed quite sounded like this one. Originally performed on Broadway in 1971, the show centres on the gospels and their account of the final week of the lives of Jesus and his followers. For once in a review, this is a background that I do not need to fill in for readers, and the subject matter for a "rock musical" is probably just as contentious now for many as it was in this very first performance.
It is about 15 years since I have seen this show, and even then I could not help but feel that the music and dialogue was very much of its original time. Jesus Christ Superstar is very much an echo of an earlier time in music, and while I had a few problems with that first time round, this time I have come to the conclusion that this anchoring in musical time actually now works in the show's favour as the years go on. As an audience, you know exactly what to expect from this show, and it delivers that wonderfully.
Playing the principal cast tonight were Glenn Carter (Jesus), Tim Rogers (Judas Iscariot), Rachel Adedeji (Mary Magdalene), Rhydian Roberts is playing Pontius Pilate on this tour, but tonight (and last night) he was indisposed and this part was played by Johnathan Tweedie.
Anyone performing in this show is fortunate as they have some of the best known musical numbers from the last 40 years to work with, and having an audience that is probably familiar with at least some of that music is always a good point to start with.
Glenn Carter is outstanding as Jesus and puts in a very powerful and emotional performance. It is nice to see someone on stage who understands what a wonderful instrument the human voice can be as he takes us from quiet and underplayed to incredibly powerful vocals throughout the show. Glenn Carter understands how to use his voice, and that conveying emotion is more important than volume at times. This is a "Rock Opera", and you need to have that sort of "Rock God" presence on stage to play this part. There is always something very reminiscent of Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin in this role. I always feel that, although Jesus is the lead part in this show, for a performer it is not necessarily the best part in the show as the on-stage interpretation of Jesus is so controversial still to many people that there is not a lot of room for an artist to develop this role into their own. Anyone playing Jesus is always balancing on a tightrope and it is difficult not to just be a bit of a cartoon character. Fortunately, the humanity that this show brings to Jesus is what stops that happening here. Oddly enough, it seems to be that depiction of his humanity that seems to offend so many people.
Tim Rogers as Judas for me gets the best part in this show (villains often seem to do that). Apart from having some wonderful songs to showcase his great vocal talents, this role allows him to show many sides to the character of Judas.
Rachel Adedeji as Mary Magdalene probably gets many people's two favourite songs from the show - "Everything's Alright" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him"
Cavin Cornwall as Caiaphas needs a special mention here as his character connects all the people together and drives the story to its ultimate end conclusion. Cavin has that unbelievably deep booming voice that we now expect from this role.
Taking up the role of Pontius Pilate at a very late stage did not prevent Johnathan Tweedie from putting in a fine performance too.
Tom Gilling as Herod gets the over-the-top comedy number of Herod's Song (Try it and See), and gets to have obvious fun with it. At times it is a bit Tim Curry in Rocky Horror to me, but a great performance. I have to admit that while I liked the performance put in by Tom Gilling here, this novelty number is my least favourite from the show. While I can understand the use of it as Herod is mocking Jesus, the music is so different from the rest of the work that it always seems slightly out of place to me.
The stage set for this show was also impressive. Right at the very beginning pretty much all the audence sees is a huge "crown of thorns" hovering in the air. Most of the story takes place directly under this crown which lowers and changes angle throughout the show. The temple stage setting also impressed me and although the lighting rarely let you see it, the detailing on the stones and pillars looked very good even from the circle of the Playhouse.
The final crucifixion scene was wonderfully played by Glenn Carter, and the cross from the crucifixion rising out of the stage floor was a nice touch. It was interesting to me to think that such a pivotal image had been before us all the time unseen.
"Jesus Christ Superstar" is a deceptive piece of work as the "rock opera" format hides a bit what an amazingly complex and interlocking piece of musical work this is. On one level it is an updating of centuries old passion plays, but on another level it is based along early church music and very classical composition rules. This is a multi layered work of insight from two people who would prove over and over that this was no "one-off" from them.
Oddly enough, the fact that this show is so much of its time reflects to us all just how free and open that time was to new ideas. I am not sure that in this age of increasingly polarised religious views a show like this would even get a start today. Did the 1970s offer more freedom than we have now in the 21st century?
This is a very good show that is up to the high standards that you would expect from any Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice piece of work. If you get a chance, go and see it while it is here.
Review by Tom King