Anything describing itself as a concert version is usually being modest and the first major London production in five months is an exhilarating return to live performance. Last year when its regular home was being spruced-up and renamed, Les Misérables badged its all-star interim summer show as a concert production due to the limitations of the much smaller Gielgud stage, and while there may have been microphone stands and a reduced visual aesthetic, in reality it was staged, acted and sung with as much conviction as any performance in its 30-year history. Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre may say concert on the poster but there is singing, dancing, performing and storytelling nine shows a week.
Created under socially distanced conditions and with a reduced cast that shares several of the leading roles, director Timothy Sheader weaves the various health and safety measures seamlessly into the show. Dancers are placed two metres apart at all times, singers the same, while handheld microphones, stands and the occasional smattering of props are only touched by the performer using them. If there weren’t a sea of face masks around the auditorium you would hardly notice the difference, the production choices easily passing for those of an edgy director and choreographer looking to create impact with a small cast.
But one thing that is different is the audience response and as the performers trickle on stage with bandannas across their faces and Jesus makes his entrance, spontaneous applause erupts from the audience before a single note is sung. It is a glowing and unprompted demonstration of just how important live theatre is to people in a space where capacity is one third of its former number. And after five long months to be at the beginning of a story again, not just this story but any story, feels significant. So, with music and dancing finally taking place in front of you again, knowing that over the next 90-minutes something alchemical will unfold is a thrilling prospect for those present – you may even feel a lump in your throat, but save your tears if you can for you will need them.
This Open Air Theatre production has had its own stellar history, performed three and fours years ago to wide acclaim followed by an equally beloved Barbican-transfer in 2019 and North American tours, returning to Jesus Christ Superstar seems like a savvy move as the venue tentatively feels its way back to new productions. Having previously cancelled its entire 2020 summer season and given Andrew Lloyd Webber’s proactive attempts to restart indoor theatre with Government lobbying and test performances at the Palladium, it seems entirely appropriate that one of his earliest shows should be London’s first major offering.
First performed in 1971 based on a concept album from the previous year, the blasphemous decision to write a musical based on the final days of Jesus’s life could have had niche appeal. Instead, seeing it for the first time you might be struck by how adroitly Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice have translated a sanitised story of sacrifice into an emotional human drama, eliciting all of the complexity, reluctance, fear and pain that its characters experience to bring the greatest story ever told closer to its audience.
And whether or not you believe any of it, Christian, atheist or agnostic, a fan of Lloyd Webber’s music or not, watching Sheader’s production both here and at the Barbican last summer, the potency of its symbolism and its deep integration into everyday society is hard to ignore. The iconography of the cross is everywhere we turn, creating a fundamental basis for how church, politics and state have developed in the last 2000 years, while as an emblem of suffering, hope and redemption the cross exists in art, literature and now theatre as a comfort to millions of believers down the centuries. At the Barbican, a crucifix was raised in the show’s final moments, hauntingly lit and meaningful, while the more limited staging of this revival in Regent’s Park has the character of Jesus strapped to his microphone stand, a reminder of the brutal renunciation of a reluctant man which is the essence of Lloyd Webber and Rice’s long lasting musical.
You see also the alignment of Jesus and Judas as two parallel forces set to collide, both, in their way, instruments of a God who never appears to either of them. The musical looks to recast the story of Judas whose character is given depth and complexity while learning to understand the duel drivers of self-determination and the vagaries of fate that has consigned both men to a particular place in history – or so the writers would argue – without exploring the intimate decision-making and fears that drove their behaviour. Friends, enemies or something far more complicated, Jesus Christ Superstar looks to unpick our school child understanding of the stories while offering-up alternative explanations for behaviour and reactions.
The Open Air Theatre production’s stripped-back, urban visuals designed by Tom Scutt utilises Soutra Gilmour’s tiered stage for Evita with concrete effects and rusted musicians’ box. Scutt’s approach does much to demystify the story, taking events out of their reverential cage by removing the idea of flowing robes, sandals and loincloths to create something much more twenty-first century. The slouchy gym-wear worn by the dancers is both practical and relatable, while Scutt uses costume to create different inflections, traditional cloaks for Caiaphas and his group of dastardly High Priests to set them apart, as do the tabards printed with the head of a statue worn by Roman guards, while Jesus himself is given an off-white colour scheme that eventually dispenses with a longer robe in favour of more practical cut off jeans and a t-shirt.
The most surprising and welcome aspect of this revival is Drew McOnie’s choreography that re-conceives some of the set pieces and crowd scenes to add dynamism to the production. McOnie’s work was recently celebrated by the Old Vic with an all to brief archive showing of his wonderful Jekyll and Hyde while here he employs similar storytelling technique, using quite vigorous and complex dance routines to represent the changing emotions of the crowd and disciples. Some of the greatest moments include the dancers making a socially distanced orbit around Jesus during Hosanna while the Second Act goes from strength to strength with energetic routines for Judas’ Death, Trial Before Pilot, and the title song Superstar. This hardworking Ensemble who sing, dance and play various characters are superb, managing the technical transition between numbers while observing the restrictions to deliver top quality and very welcome dance numbers throughout.
The emphasis in Sheader’s production is on the betrayals within rather than the actions of the conquering Romans in marking Jesus’s fate, and it is abundantly clear, as referenced by Pilot, that first the priests, then Judas and finally his own people turn against Jesus. They demand his death not because they believe it is necessary to save themselves, but as the bloodthirsty act of an impressionable crowd as quick to cast off their former hero as they were to build him up in the first place. The concept of a star burning brightly for a brief time is one Lloyd Webber and Rice would return to in Evita as the lasting impact caused by an untimely death creates a narrative in which the protagonist’s own life and experiences are purified, something which the writers seek to rectify by opening-up the personal story beneath the devotional mythology.
The Open Air Theatre will not confirm performers in advance so who you see playing Jesus, Judas and Mary will vary, but audiences are unlikely to be disappointed whoever assumes the lead roles. For this performance, Pepe Nufrio played Jesus having previously performed the role during the US tour of this production. Nufrio has a softer, more commercial voice than alternate Jesus Declan Bennett but is able to alter the scale and pitch his vocal to suit the tone of each song, hitting some extraordinary high notes in the latter section of the musical as fame gives way to inevitable destruction. Gethsemane proves a crucial moment as it should, powerfully performed and earning a long applause from the audience as Nufrio’s Jesus contemplates the terrible events to come, charting the story of a man already overwhelmed by his responsibilities and the ever-growing demands of others to which he feels unequal. This is taken to a new level as an ultimate sacrifice is demanded from an unseen and seemingly recalcitrant God.
Some of the most difficult elements of the role are in trying to understand and accept the forces beyond his control, the loneliness of his position as the final night leaves him without anyone to accompany him to the Garden and having to rely on his own faith in the brutal events that follow his arrest which Nufrio makes layered and meaningful. Jesus speaks less and less as Act Two plays out, transitioning from the prophet to an almost silent victim as the process of law sweeps him along. The way in which Nufrio reflects his anguish as Jesus is tortured is impressive while his final moments are incredibly moving, not only as his body transforms into that eternal symbol, but for the broken young man reluctant to die whose ‘real’ story we have witnessed.
It is wonderful to see Ricardo Afonso in the cast again as Judas after an outstanding performance at the Barbican. A performer whose vocal strength is extraordinary, Afonso suits the rock-style intensity of Judas’s music as the character grapples with complex notions of loyalty, friendship, the greater good before eventually recognising he has been used. As prime antagonist, Judas performs a similar role to Che in Evita, always there to undercut the heroism of the lead and cast doubt on the untarnished reputation of the celebrated hero, but Judas becomes the other half of Jesus in this production, two sides of the same coin cast by circumstance into ever-connected roles, the fate of each ever-resting in the hands of the other. Afonso’s performance is a full throttle joy, and as the visible silver poison from his bribe covers his hands, the audience has notable sympathy for the unfortunate disciple whose freedom to act may not have been as blameworthy as legend suggests.
Maimuna Memon’s completes an excellent trio of lead performances, her strong vocal filling the auditorium in the underwritten role of Mary Magdalene. It’s a rather sanitised character and her involvement in the story is minimal in Act Two but Memon’s incredible voice soars in her solos I Don’t Know How to Love Him and Everything’s Alright. There are notable contributions from Ivan De Freitas as Caiaphus, David Thaxton as a rock God Pilot and especially Shaq Taylor as a glitzy Herod who raises the biggest smile in one of the show’s major visual set-pieces.
As the reduced audience rise spontaneously to their feet for a long ovation, the performers are clearly as touched as we are, thrilled to be back in the theatre delivering a high-quality production. Sheader and the Open Air Theatre team may have pulled this one out of the bag but there are few obvious half measures in this professionally produced show that is concert in name only. There is still a long way to go for most venues and a lot of monologues ahead, but this stirring production of Jesus Christ Superstar is an inspiration, and during a weekend of stormy weather not a single drop of it fell on the Regent’s Park matinee, now that feels like divine intervention. Welcome back to the theatre.
Jesus Christ Superstar is at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 27th September with available tickets from £45. A screen relay will accompany the performance from 19 August for £20.
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