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Jesus Christ Superstar – review round-up

Declan Bennett and company in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Open Air Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre continues its 2016 summer season with a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s classic Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Timothy Sheader.

Its 45 years since the musical made its debut but Sheader’s production has a contemporary edge to it. It stars former Point Break singer Declan Bennett in the role of Jesus and The Book of Mormon’s Tyrone Huntley as Judas along with London jazz vocalist Anoushka Lucas as Mary Magdalen.

Troy Nankervis rounds up the reviews.

Jesus Christ Superstar – The X Factor

Anoushka Lucas in Jesus Christ Superstar
Anoushka Lucas in Jesus Christ Superstar

Many critics feel Sheader’s choice to focus on fame and fandom is a creative risk that’s paid off. Lyn Gardner (The Guardian,★★★★) writes Sheader “fearlessly negotiates some of the show’s camper excesses” while staying true to its roots as an arena show.

Dominic Cavendish (The Telegraph,★★★★) says the “beautifully lit spectacle of our bloodied saviour” doesn’t disappoint, while Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard,★★★★) says the “vivid” and “compelling” direction is “some of the most stylish” she’s seen this year.

Quentin Letts (Daily Mail,★★★★★) in his somewhat idiosyncratic review calls the production “a work of rare mission and artistic merit.”
Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out,★★★★) calls it “both ruggedly masculine and flamboyantly fabulous at the same time” and says this is “the key to the success of this revival”.

Other critics are less convinced by Sheader’s production falls short. Dom O’Hanlon (London Theatre,★★★) says the concept “almost works”, while Tim Bano (The Stage,★★★★) says the X Factor aesthetic is “big” and “brash” but “too showy”.

Jesus Christ Superstar – a design for life

Jesus Christ Superstar at the Open Air Theatre, London
Jesus Christ Superstar at the Open Air Theatre, London

Tom Scutt’s industrial set which includes a giant cruciform catwalk runway comes in for praise.

Fergus Morgan (Exeunt) writes: “The ensemble, clad in distressed, grey tank-tops and skinny trackies, dance furiously throughout upon Scutt’s looming, smoke-filled mess of rusty iron girders and fallen crosses. And in the second-half, as events march towards their Golgotha apogee, there are some breath-taking visuals.”

Lyn Gardner says Sheader has located the heart of the show in the “rusty, rough and ready” surroundings, while Matt Trueman (WhatsOnStage,★★★) says a coating of “glittery gloss” captures sentiments “that even precious metals turn to rust”.

Although Cavendish says “a nondescript building-site backdrop of girders and superabundance of gimmicky glitter gives the evening a rudimentary feel”, he also says these transform into some of the production’s key strengths. “The necessary showbiz elements – a Temple-scene replete with fire and flares, a camp-as-Christmas Herod from Peter Caulfield, who zips from wearing way too much to barely anything – are well served.”

Alexandra Coughlan (Arts Desk, ★★★★) flags up Drew McOnie’s “edgy” and “unsettling” choreography and writes: “Entering through the audience, guitars and microphone stands in hand, the cast, all hoodies and trainers, crawl, jump and vault into the space like so many squatters breaking into an abandoned building. Their makeshift home frames a makeshift production that delights in showing its working.”

Jesus Christ Superstar – Tyrone Huntley, an almighty voice

Tyrone Huntley as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo Johan Persson.
Tyrone Huntley as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo Johan Persson.

Tyrone Huntley’s performance as Judas has been pretty universally praised. Morgan says Huntley’s “scampering, simmering Judas” captures a fury “with the main man for his decadent failing to pursue real social justice and for foolishly believing the myths told about him.”

Lukowski says that Huntley’s “soulful howl is the most electrifying instrument” of the entire show, Bano notes Huntley’s “twisted, tortured ferocity.” He also says Huntley’s “searing anger makes him the most fleshed out character in the production,” while Quentin Letts adds the performer’s “vast vocal range” has brought to life “an energetic [and] needy Judas”.

Jesus Christ Superstar – so is it any good?

Despite some minor reservations, the answer is in the affirmative. Gardner says Jesus Christ Superstar is “an expected and considerable pleasure that really rocks,” while Montford praises the “gallery of exquisite images” created against the backdrop of Regent’s Park.

Coughlan says it’s the “finest musical” Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has produced to date.

Yet while Paul Taylor (The Independent,★★★) agrees the production is “enjoyable”, he feels it “stops short of a miracle”. He writes: “Even the best productions of Jesus Christ Superstar can’t quite disguise the fact that this is a rock oratorio rather than a sustained piece of drama”.

Trueman adds the attempt to replicate an outdoor stadium concert feel does not fully work. He says: “Despite Lee Curran’s stadium-style lighting, which lifts the show as darkness descends, and Tom Deering’s contemporarised orchestrations, it’s still too polite for a real gig, too removed and too showy.”

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