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Theatre Review: Jesus Christ Superstar ****

Michael Cox reviews the latest tour of the musical theatre classic.

What is the appeal of Jesus Christ Superstar? Originally a concept album, it has become a musical behemoth with countless stagings from around the world responsible for keeping it popular and constantly revisited.

For those who aren’t familiar, Superstar is a (mostly) Rock retelling of the last seven days of Jesus’ life, though much of it is told from the viewpoints of Judas and Mary Magdalene. It was the musical that launched the careers of Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), and it remains one of the best works either have created: catchy variable tunes and clever lyrics with wit and depth make it a richer piece than it first appears.

Director Timothy Sheader’s staging heavily leans into the musical’s rock roots. The cast sing into handheld microphones and don costumes that would sometimes fit within a ‘Glam Rock’ concert. The design is also more in line with a concert than a musical staging, with lighting equipment, speakers and scaffolding. Only a large crucifix that lies on stage throughout hints at this being a show that usually sits on West End and Broadway stages.

Ian McIntosh’s excellent performance as Jesus is a modern incarnation—short hair and dressed in a hoodie, he exudes magnetic charm yet is usually calm in his demeanour: he’d fit right in with a Just Stop Oil or anti-Brexit protest. Shem Omari James’ Judas is equally interesting: usually in the shadows, wresting with the dilemma of betrayal. His voice sometimes pops, but he does well in some of the musical’s most difficult moments. Hannah Richardson and Ryan O’Donnell turn in two of the best performances as Mary and Pilate, each nailing some of the musical’s strongest moments. Drew McOnie’s choreography relies more on staccato movement and street dance, giving the production’s excellent ensemble a raw energy that is compelling and sometimes feels more like an act of musical protest than traditional dance.

However, it isn’t perfect. This was seen at Glasgow’s Kings Theatre, and some of the action is only viewable from the extreme sides of the audience due to the staging being wider than the stage itself—this will not be an issue on larger stages within the tour (this assumably includes when the musical visits the Edinburgh Playhouse next year). While the concert staging mostly works, some of the emotional solos are hindered by actors holding guitars, making these moments more ‘gig like’ instead of scenes of emotional outpouring and robbing them of poignancy. There is also a star cameo with Julian Clary, who’s four-minute number as Herod isn’t the big showstopper other productions turned it into—this is little more than a slight comedic pause within an overall relentless performance.

Still, those who are fans of Superstar will find a lot to be happy with and impressed by, and those who haven’t seen it will see why this remains a gem within musical theatre’s canon.

Jesus Christ Superstar is at the Kings Theatre in Glasgow until October 21 before continuing its tour. For further details (and future Scottish appearances), check the tour’s website.

Tags: theatre

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