Review: Jesus Christ Superstar: Harvest Rain Theatre

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Top Posts of 2010

This review refers to Harvest Rain’s recent ‘first’ production of JCS and was originally published on August 26, 2010

And so, finally, to the theatre last night for Jesus Christ Superstar at QPAC …

From the moment those unforgettable screeching guitar riffs at the top of the show break the silence, you know you’re in for a wild ride.  At its inception JCS was a brilliant, irreverent break with tradition and, given its subject matter, which brought protesters out with placards (yes, really), it was a triumph for a musical theatre which had got used to sweetly melodic, fairly safe and predictable plotlines in mostly Broadway shows – as well as the fact that Brits couldn’t write blockbuster musicals.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice put paid to that with their second biblical opus – the first was Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. JCS is arguably their freshest and best – Cats notwithstanding. It’s the gutsiest and was, and still is, a big show on all fronts. It brought rock rhythms and song lyrics that shocked and delighted with their contemporary edge: ‘Hey JC, JC’ you’re all right with me’; ‘I couldn’t cope, just couldn’t cope’; ‘Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool’ are just a few. At the time, the show’s self-styling as a rock opera took a lot of people by surprise; we’d not heard those words before, although Pete Townshend and The Who had produced the first of the genre (Tommy) a couple of years before. The rock part of the name provided the sounds, the style, the gutsiness, whilst the opera gave the drama and the gravitas with, in the case of Jesus Christ Superstar, subject matter straight out of the New Testament.

This revival nearly 40 years on by Tim O’Connor for Harvest Rain Theatre at QPAC’s Playhouse takes on the 1971 breakthrough musical, and gives it a good run for its money. The epic nature of the work is reflected well in the production’s staging. Visually it’s a treat, and musically – well, for a start those those melodies just won’t go away will they – stunning stuff. Many of the musical stylings have been reworked and reworked well under the musical direction of Maitlohn Drew. It’s a big, big cast of talented, good looking principals and an energetic all-singing, all dancing chorus; set and lighting are terrific.

Josh Macintosh‘s ruined interior of a Gothic cathedral lit by Jason Glenwright serves as backdrop to the telling of the tale – which uses the convention of the play within a play. By the way, what is it with sets as ruins at the moment? Waiting for Godot (the recent McKellen/Rees version) used a ruined theatre also to good effect. I suppose it’s inherently dramatic – what’s caused the ruin, where are we, what’s outside and so on …

Set and costume design and Tim O’Connor’s direction call up very strongly the world of medieval Mystery plays where biblical stories were played out by actors on the steps or interior of European churches. The quite jolly inhabitants of the ruins – sanctuary-seekers, actors – we’re never quite sure and don’t really need to be, play out the ‘Jesus story’ under the direction/stage-management of the ‘actor’ who plays Judas.  The familiar – or is it – play within a play convention needs careful handling though; the segue from the stage narrative to the one played out – at the start and conclusion – wasn’t sufficiently well defined in this production. Judas’ death was staged somewhat confusingly, but then he had to come back as the chief story-teller/director of the Jesus story … and so on.

More than anything else though, this production of Jesus Christ Superstar has the feeling of a visually splendid staged concert. It’s the music and the musical numbers that get the focus – there’s no dialogue of course. Perhaps this is why the acting takes a back seat, at least the reason the opportunity is not taken to flesh out the implied action of lyrics and, especially, to develop relationships. The politics are there, but not the psychology. At the heart of this play is the triangular relationship – that of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Judas – and I missed the development of this, the really tragic aspect of the work and, arguably, the opportunity for a fresh approach.

Luke Kennedy, Naomi Price, and Tod Strike are all very, very good. Naomi Price is at home on this stage, and her numbers as Mary are confidently delivered and freely and delightfully interpreted. As Kennedy (Jesus) and Strike (Judas) let their voices soar through Lloyd-Webber’s really gorgeous melodies in the big dramatic moments of the play, I was reminded of the way the rock male falsetto had come back into fashion in the 70s; it might even have been the first time it had been exploited so strongly on the then-contemporary stage. By the way, I’d love to see Mr Strike use more of his tender, unforced vocal range … he was at his most affecting when the belt guard was down, and he let the meaning of the line have its way. PS Loud is not always more dramatic; John 19:41 ‘played’ by the orchestra in the closing moments of the play suffers from aural distortion, and needs a bit of tweaking on the volume button. The other villains of the piece: Steven Tandy‘s Herod, Lionel Theunissen‘s Pilate, and Lawrie Esmond as Caiaphas are all arresting in their interpretations. Pilate’s Dream still sends shivers down my spine and Mr Theunissen’s interpretation did it proud.

This show stands up as strongly as ever nearly 40 years on.  Like the rest of the almost-full house last night – many young people seeing the show for the first time as well as we oldies – I very much enjoyed a lot of this production, but in the end it just feels more wholesome than irreverent, more secure and less dangerous than the spirit in the original work.

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