Despite so many productions of Jesus Christ Superstar since its 1971 Broadway debut run, there were still a fair number of people at the performance I attended at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre that had never seen it before. Others had seen different productions in different countries in different languages over the years. I mention this because, paradoxically, it is irrelevant: whether this was a first-time experience, or one in a long line of many, there was much to be impressed by in this fresh expression of a musical brought firmly into the twenty-first century whilst retaining a narrative from the first.
The band, directed by Tom Deering, plays with confidence, navigating their way through the iconic Andrew Lloyd Webber score, which sometimes lurches in style from subtle to full-blown classic rock, best demonstrated in ‘Gethsemane’, which also sees Jesus Christ (Declan Bennett) stretching his vocals to the limit one minute and making a soft, poignant point the next. It is worth pointing out that Bennett does evade the highest of the high notes, even as the audience seemed to be willing him on. The set, meanwhile, could not be more different from the one used in the 2012-13 UK arena tour, with some inventive use of props, particularly in a scene where high priest Caiaphas (a suitably bass-baritone Cavin Cornwall) leads a group of clergy through ‘This Jesus Must Die’.
Indeed, much of the show seems to take on the feeling of a rock concert, so much so that the handheld microphones and cables are repeatedly used very creatively to advance the narrative. Bennett’s Christ often sings (preaches?) to his followers without blasting the theatre audience with a hair-dryer treatment of Tim Rice’s periodically rapid lyrics; at first both he and Judas Iscariot (a stunning Tyrone Huntley) come across as singers who are overly reliant on microphones, with little projection, and with it, a debatable lack of engagement with the audience. But when the occasion calls for it, they step up by several notches – and by several octaves too.
Mary (Anoushka Lucas) gives quite an adequate if bland rendering of ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’; in its own way, on reflection, it could be said that she really didn’t know how – but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the delivery of the song as a piece of musical theatre. The relatively dour Pilate (David Thaxton), with powerhouse vocals, contrasts well with the playful and flashy Herod (Peter Caulfield), who delighted the audience with a bit of comic relief. The ending, the essence of which is hardly a spoiler, is well-performed, with Christ convulsing and gasping whilst being crucified, notably without a hint of melodrama or insensitivity.
As always with Jesus Christ Superstar, those unfamiliar with the source material might struggle slightly with the sparse character development. I wouldn’t say there is ‘too much armography’ to quote BBC Television’s Strictly Come Dancing, but there’s a lot of it in Drew McOnie’s choreography.
It works, most of the time, but occasionally the hand-waving becomes excessive. But there’s a moment of sheer brilliance in a recreating of Da Vinci’s famous Last Supper painting during the Act Two opener.
Short but not very sweet, I found myself engrossed by this production, and thought the standing ovation very much deserved. Some touches of actor-musicianship add another layer to a palpably energetic show. A worthy inclusion in this year’s Regent’s Park programme, many of the events depicted would actually have taken place in the open air: all the more reason to include this sparkling show to your summer calendar.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Celebrating 45 years since Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s seminal musical first hit the stage, Jesus Christ Superstar returns to London in a powerful new production directed by Timothy Sheader.
Singer-songwriter Declan Bennett, once a member of Brit Award nominated boy band Point Break, and more recently the lead in the musical Once, will take the role of Jesus.
With a legendary score including I Don’t Know How to Love Him, Gethsemane and Superstar, experience epic storytelling in the remarkable surroundings of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
Tickets are non-refundable in the event of cancellation because of the weather but may be exchanged in accordance with the Weather Policy.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4NU
Show Opened: 15th Jul 2016
Booking Until: 27th Aug 2016
Important Information: Please note that latecomers will not be admitted until the interval. Also, should you need to leave the auditorium, re-admittance is not permitted during the performance.