Everything’s not alright, alas, about a production which isn’t so much a musical as a deafening, deadening travesty of a great show.
Tim Minchin (Judas Iscariot), Ben Forster (Jesus) and Melanie C (Mary Magdalene) in Jesus Christ Superstar at the O2 Arena, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Jesus Christ Superstar is one of Lloyd Webber’s finest hours (or two) as a composer, but this production is arguably the lowest level yet of its commercial exploitation. It cynically co-opts the Britain of street riots and Occupy London protests (with tents pitched all over the stage), not to mention the particularly vile spectacle of Jesus in a Guantanamo Bay orange jumpsuit before his punishment by 39 lashes.
Yet if this confusing attempt to plunge Jesus Christ Superstar into the modern era represents anything of the world today, it’s that anything will be attempted in the name of profit. Even casting Chris Moyles, late of Radio 1’s breakfast show, in the role of Herod, epitomises the fact that today celebrity counts for more than ability.
The production has also, of course, famously also reached out to a wider public by inviting them, as Lloyd Webber has previously done for his own production company’s stagings of The Sound of Music, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Wizard of Oz, to personally select a usually unknown actor to play the lead role.
In fact, this year’s contest duly saw several established actors - including a one-time Olivier nominee Alex Gaumond and Roger Wright, who originated the role of Simba in the West End’s Lion King - enter the contest; it was won by Ben Forster, who acts with soulful gazes and flicks of his tousled hair, but hits the high notes as required.
But the production consistently hits far lower ones. I’ve seldom seen a production as utterly misconceived and overblown as this one. That’s partly, of course, a function of trying to fill such a vast stage and reach such a huge audience.
If the production completely fails to sustain the tensions of the story - the loud bits are excruciating, the tender moments lost - that’s largely not the fault of a hard-working, even harder-singing cast. There are a couple of triumphs among the casting. Tim Minchin effortlessly rises above the din to show that there’s nothing this man can’t do, whether it’s being one of the funniest comics working today, a brilliant composer in his own right, or now a powerful leading man of musicals. And Alex Hanson, as Pontius Pilate, lends supreme vocal authority and acting assurance to prove what years of experience can bring to the stage.
Lloyd Webber took to the stage at the end of the first night to applaud a production that he said represented, after 42 years, the Jesus Christ Superstar he always wanted to see. Personally, it’s one I wished I hadn’t seen, especially after a Broadway revival earlier this year that transferred from Stratford, Ontario, gave us the show in all its powerful glory. Could we start again, please, and have that production instead?