Jesus Christ Superstar
The O2 Arena, London
Friday 21st September 2012
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera was first released as a concept album back in 1970 before a US arena tour was embarked upon, which was followed by productions in theatres on Broadway and in the West End. It is back to the arena roots, for which ALW insists the musical was intended, that this revival takes us.
Director Laurence Connor has used influences from the Occupy London protests, with pop up tents strewn across the stage, and the London riots, with the ensemble dressed in hoodies, to style this new production. It works superbly, with the frenetic energy generated by the numerous and excellent gang-like ensemble fitting the zealous crowd of Christ's followers.
Imaginative use was made of the huge backing screens, not only to bring the thousands of distant audience members closer to the facial expressions of the performers, but also to add mood with images of modern social oppression, and location with depictions of a concrete block temple. The Superstar lyric "If you'd come today, you'd have reach a whole nation/Israel in 4BC had no mass communication" was echoed too, with flashes of Twitter feeds adorning What's the Buzz?
In a crushed red velvet suit, Chris Moyles as Herod performed almost entirely to the roaming cameras as a greasy game show host offering an audience vote as to whether Jesus is "Lord or Fraud". In a role that was clearly cast by notability rather than ability, Moyles was carried through by the excellent staging of this number and received one of the biggest cheers of the night. Melanie Chisholm with tattoos and dreadlocks sang pretty versions of her two numbers as Mary Magdelene. However it was away from the starry billing that the major talent could be found in the supporting cast, with West End and Broadway stage actor Alexander Hanson bringing his beautiful, smooth vocals and charismatic characterisation to a marvellous performance as Pontius Pilate.
The ITV1 audience's choice, Ben Forster, played a brooding Jesus. His voice was strong and rocky, and he sang with undisputed passion, although Act 2's huge Gethsemane relied more upon power than pitch. He was convincing though in a role that, despite the hype of a TV series, was always going to play second fiddle to the genius casting of Tim Minchin as Judas. Intelligent, strong, acted with conviction and sung with both raw energy and excellent pitch, Minchin proved himself as the man of the moment and completely stole the show. The staging of Judas' death left a particularly harrowing impression, designed and executed to perfection. Comedian, Composer, Singer, Actor, it seems however Tim Minchin applies his talent he manages to show everyone else how it should be done.
Having received a "Marmite" reaction after this opening performance, with either 1 star or 4 star reviews from the major critics, I sit firmly at the positive end of opinions, despite the technical problems with the sound - unforgivable in a production at this level. This arena version stands alone as a night of both loud, energised rock music and emotionally powerful theatre that could not be captured in quite the same way in a smaller scale venue. Few musicals would stand up to the size of this production, but Jesus Christ Superstar feels right at home.