Jesus Christ Superstar has always been an audacious project – a young composer putting the story of Christ to a set of catchy, often cheesy tunes and giving Judas Iscariot a backstory and Jesus himself some dimension. Back when the ‘rock opera’ first emerged, the audacity clicked: the early ’70s concept album released by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice was a smash. The musical theatre productions that followed have been mostly blockbusters – Aussies still fondly remember the John Farnham-Jon Stevens-Kate Ceberano arena show from 21 years ago. Most probably still have the CD.
If the original thing was audacious, British director Laurence O’Connell’s take is audacity on top of audacity. The Superstar now on stage at the Sydney Entertainment Centre is the story of a lost messiah in an ‘Occupy’ world – riot police clash with chain-smoking, leather-clad apostles; Mary Magdalene sings sweetly from beneath a nest of dreadlocks; and Jesus’s HQ, shown on a huge background screen, is a dilapidated concrete building stamped with the words “Follow #TheTwelve”. When it works, it works spectacularly – audaciously. Only occasionally do you feel the strain of this new, very ‘now’, re-imagining.
We’ll be brief on the plot – we think you’re probably familiar with the major stations. What Lloyd Webber and Rice did as their ‘twist’ on the tale was to put Judas (here, Tim Minchin
) at the centre, presenting the disciple-traitor as an angsty (and here, dreadlocked) disciple who’s lost faith in a Jesus (Ben Forster) who’s lost control of his movement. His betrayal is unselfish. At the key moment of that betrayal, when he goes to give Jesus up and take his reward, he sings: “Jesus wouldn't mind that I was here with you / I have no thought at all about my own reward / I really didn't come here of my own accord.” As the story you’re familiar with from Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John unfolds, it is the relationship between these two men that focuses the action.
It’s a compelling if strange idea this Jesus-musical – seeing Judas hang himself on a tree in the middle of the Entertainment Centre is a bit… well, bizarre and uncomfortable. And the final scenes, with Jesus raised up on a cross made of criss-crossed lighting trusses as petals fall about him is stunning but, again, odd. I could not help but think what my school religious coordinator would make of all this. Yet the Judas-Jesus dynamic intrigues throughout and Lloyd Webber’s compositions are still spectacular. The dreamy ‘Everything’s Alright’, the epic ‘Superstar’, the choral ‘Hosanna’… some of Lloyd Webber’s best work is here. And it’s mostly free of the composer’s later habits of endless reprises and repetition. Despite the drums, grandiose melodies and fuzzed-up guitars, Superstar is one of Lloyd Webber’s subtler moments.
While O’Connell’s staging dazzles – re-imagining the corrupted temple as a gaudy neon-addled nightclub called ‘Temple’ is just one of many bright ideas – the production soars in more pared-back moments with its three leads. Minchin
is all throaty growl (and extremely red eyes) as Judas, petulant and convincingly damaged by turns. Forster, who won the role of Jesus on a reality series judged by Lloyd Webber, is phenomenal. His ‘Gethsemene’, a howling pre-capture prayer that plays out like some rousing vocal endurance challenge – if there’s a note it doesn’t call for, we haven’t heard it – will floor you. And then there’s Melanie C
. The former Spice Girl plays Mary Magdalene as a soothing ointment for the two tensed-up leads. Her voice, familiar in tone and surprising in strength, seems made for crossover pop hit ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’, one of the show’s best moments. (The casting also introduces a humorous continuity error – is that real tattoo of a cross on Melanie C
’s arm a sign that Magdalene knew what was coming?)
For the most part, O’Connell’s modern re-imagining works, especially when Herrod comes out as the cheesy host of game show Hark With Herrod and calls for viewers to text in ‘Lord or Fraud’. (Casting Deal or No Deal’s Andrew O’Keefe is inspired – a ham who knows it, he minces marvellously in a velvet red suit.) The modernising visual references run the gamut from Occupy to the London Riots to Guantanamo. It feels relevant and firmly in the now, but there are a few eye-roll moments when it becomes too forced: projections of Tweets on the big screen; YouTube videos of Christ giving talks; and the inevitable Shepard Fairey-style Christ ‘Believe’ posters, bringing to mind another leader with whom the public has been disenchanted.
But really, this is an ‘arena spectacular’ and one shouldn’t think too hard when it comes to such things. It's perfectly thrilling and it's been a long time since we've seen the entire Entertainment Centre rise to its feet for a standing O. As a big, splashy entertainment, underpinned by some fabulous rock songs and performed by a set of fine musicians, Jesus Christ Superstar is an audacious and spectacular – if odd – time at the arena.
Read Time Out London's review of Jesus Christ Superstar
Read Time Out Sydney's interview with Tim Minchin
Read Time Out Sydney's interview with Melanie C