Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Splinters has been amazed to received messages of support from both of them, trying to outdo each other in their good luck messages! Ben Forster, who played Jesus in the 2012 arena tour, and the cast of Hamilton also sent good wishes as news spread of the production on social media.
So there was a lot of hype to live up to. And Splinters duly delivered the goods.
Director Ian Walker has brought this 1970 show completely up to date. Characters wear modern dress and use mobile phones. The empty multi layered stage suits this show perfectly. A screen at the back of the stage is fully utilised throughout the show, displaying social media messages, close-ups of soloists, background scenery and Judas’ hanging.
The modernisation mainly works well, but there are some areas where it feels a little stretched. For example, Jesus’ followers are portrayed as rebels against the government and the opening scene in this production has them involved in a riot with looting and violence. Then, somewhat incongruously, a smiling Jesus enters planning the next action. Similarly, ‘The Temple’ is the name of a nightclub complete with lap dancing, drug taking and bouncers. There is no indication that this is, or ever has been a holy place, so Jesus’ anger feels unwarranted. But these are minor issues – Splinters should be applauded for doing something different with a show that is almost 50 years old.
Taking the title role of Jesus is Dan Romano, an A level student. He’s very young to be playing the part of 33 year old Jesus, but does so with assured confidence. His softer vocals in particular were very good, with great control. His performance of the iconic and notably very difficult ‘Gethsemane’ was especially impressive and the audience roared their approval. His acting in the flogging scene with Pilate – one of the show’s highlights – was painfully convincing with blood spattering on the screen with every lash.
The protagonist Judas Iscariot is a massive role in the show. Judas’ conflict is that he loves Jesus, but doesn’t accept that he is the son of God, arguing that this delusion gets in the way of the group’s anti-Rome message. He believes that betraying Jesus to the priests is for the greater good. Ross Bannister’s powerful portayal puts that conflict and anguish across to the audience tremendously well. His performance is stunning, his vocals and acting are exceptional and he gave the performance of the night. All his vocals were spot on, but his reprise of ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ was sung and acted to perfection and the audience was moved to silence.
The only principal female part in the show is Mary Magdalene. Played here by Jessica Rose Curr, her rendition of the musical theatre classic ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ came across very well. Her duet with Peter (Ben Bason) in ‘Could We Start Again Please’ was very nicely sung by both actors.
Mark Holmes as Pilate gave a very strong performance of one of the best songs in the show, ‘Pilate’s Dream’ – where Pilate has a dream foretelling that he will be blamed by hundreds of millions crying for Jesus. This was a true highlight in the production. There was a great moment in the flogging scene where the dream was echoed in the music and Pilate realises that his dream is coming true. Holmes portrayed that moment of realisation beautifully.
Herod was played by Bob Flewitt as a camp TV star with dancing girls, cameramen and stage crew with signs instructing the audience to cheer and clap. This was a clever idea but the signs were too random and distracted somewhat from the performance of the song. This device seemed to reduce Herod’s real power and menace.
The main priests Caiaphas and Annas were played well by Keith Harriott and Adam R Walker. Annas was smug and condescending while Caiaphas was more matter of fact. Both actors have very strong singing voices which complemented each other excellently. Harriott’s rich base tones were especially good. There was also a very strong vocal performance from John Crowther as Simon. In fact, there were no weak principal singers here – all of them are worthy of individual praise, even those given just a line or two to sing were strong and clear.
The ensemble worked hard in many guises eg disciples, lepers, nightclub dancers, reporters. Their energetic singing and dancing were of a consistently high standard with choreography by Abigail Oldfield and Leah Rhodes-Burch.
There were several very clever lighting effects from Owain Thomas and Ian Caballero – notably the sickly green light on the lepers while Jesus in his white shirt remained cleanly lit; the striking betrayal scene with the lighting change to black and red; the bright lights on the cross turning red and going out as Jesus died.
The musical direction from Anna Wright was just excellent. The band were first rate, working hard in this fully sung through show, and the sound never overwhelmed the singers.
A commendable production – all concerned should be proud.
Jesus Christ Superstar continues at the Octagon from Thursday 4 April to Saturday 6 April, with evening performances starting at 7.30pm from Thursday to Saturday with a matinee at 2.30pm on Saturday.