“Could you ask as much from any other man?”
Andrew Lloyd Webber sure doesn’t make it easy – for his support of new musical theatre in taking over the St James Theatre to making a transatlantic dash to the House of Lords to vote in support of tax credit cuts for the working poor, it’s hard to know where to stand. His status in the British theatrical establishment remains largely unchallenged though and it is to the 46-year-old Jesus Christ Superstar that the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park have turned for their big summer musical, directed this year by Timothy Sheader.
And how do you play a 70s rock opera for today? You bring onboard shit-hot creatives like Tom Scutt and Drew McOnie to reinvent it for 2016. Scutt’s design choices make a virtue of the timeless iron structure that edges the stage. The company arrive in luxury sportswear, its loose silhouettes and muted earth tones akin to a Kanye West fashion show with which McOnie’s contemporary choreography meshes perfectly. Later scenes feature the glitter-covered muscularity of something like a late night Brighton Pride, a smattering of Xerxes from the film 300 and all out Sink the Pink excess during the whipping sequence.
It’s an arresting set of images – the idea of Tyrone Huntley’s Judas being infected by his 30 piece of silver is a bit Torchwood but still visually stunning – and they go a long way to infusing this production with a surprising but effective sense of modernity. Ultimately though, it feels that there’s little that can be done with the climactic ‘Superstar’, its behemoth of a melody resisting any form of update and so the production shifts to accommodate it, costumes and choreo switching to a hippyish vibe that nods back to the show’s age, for better or for worse.
Tom Deering’s musical direction is much more able to make its stamp on the rest of the score though aided by the innate musicality of his leads. Bennett is clearly as at home with a guitar in his hands as a mike and consequently rocks up a storm, none more so than in a scintillating angry ‘Gethsemane’, working out his emotions until eventually sinking to his knees in haunted regret. And Anoushka Lucas makes great use of her jazz/soul singer background as Mary, subtle inflections transforming the likes of ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’, again finding new feeling in the music – one of my favourite moments in the entire show is her tiny smile to herself as she sings “he’s just a man”.
In some ways, Jesus Christ Superstar is a strange show to watch as there’s not much plot to it and fewer narrative surprises, which no amount of coloured smoke or borders of fire can hide. And Sheader’s loose staging, almost concert or dance recital-like at times, acknowledges this in trying to create a new kind of spectacle for it and with McOnie and Scutt onboard, along with strong performances from Bennett and Lucas, plus arresting turns from David Thaxton’s Pilate and Peter Caulfield’s Herod, it largely succeeds.