Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, is a well-known and much-loved show, but it has not been on our stages for a number of years. First written and produced as an album, this rock opera musical had its first steps on Broadway and the West End a little later on in the early 1970s. Running for eight years in London, it became the UK’s longest running musical in its time. Earlier this year, Lloyd Webber announced the TV Show Superstar would allow the public to vote who would play Jesus in the new and updated Arena Tour later this year.
In the packed arena, I’m sure most people have not only come to see ITV’s winner Ben Forster but the rest of the star-studded cast. Comedian and musician Tim Minchin, who near enough cast himself plays Judas; ex-Spice Girl, Mel C is Mary Magdalene and the Saviour of Radio 1, Chris Moyles, takes to the camp King Herod.
Clearly this was going to be a very different experience from a more intimate theatre in London. Instead, I’m what seems miles away from the stage, surrounded by thousands of pin-dot bodies and my seat is not even facing in the right direction. The theatrical experience is certainly warped, but the production still has everything it needs for a spectacle, which I suppose is what ultimately sells the tickets and packs out the arenas.
Director Laurence Connor’s modern revival is somewhat predictable, but it fits. Relocating Rome to St. Pauls Cathedral steps, Jesus and his hippy friends cause a buzz after the opening scene of London riots, sharing the gospel via protests and social media. The stage is seamlessly accommodating of its changing locations, whilst the challenge of iconic images like the Garden of Gethsemane and the crucifixion are met with technically and aesthetically inspiring stagecraft and lighting.
The use of the camera and visuals on the large screen behind the set was possibly the best and worst thing about the production. Its ability to create more intense scenes was slick and impressive. Unfortunately, the live camera feed of actors needed for facial actions and such were sometimes badly framed, and at other times disrupting when merged with too many other visuals.
As for the star-studded cast, their contrasting backgrounds and skill set actually worked to their advantage. Jesus, Mary and Judas who own the story, had warmed my heart by the end. Too common for musicals with this new X-factor-esque casting however, is that most or even all of the acting is compromised in favour of big voices that can deliver song after song, night after night. Its lack of acting ability seems acceptable and probably irrelevant for an arena tour like this though, especially as it modernizes and opens up a whole new kind of theatre audience (which is certainly important and can’t be a bad thing).
Besides, it is not to say that the cast do not provide notable, emotional presences on stage, with the help of a superb lighting design. Mel C shines out far brighter in her solo performances, holding the entire arena as she sits alone on stage, heartbreakingly questioning this man Jesus and how she loves him so. Tim Minchin steps up to the challenging role of Judas with a mature conviction, and Chris Moyles’ short-lived scene still offers all the comic relief the British public expect from him. As for the ITV-viewers vote, Ben Forster can definitely sing and proves himself in the second half of the performance far more than the first.
For an audience who is probably rare to engage with neither the gospel nor the theatre, this is a flashy spectacle with enough of an emotional idea that might dwell in their minds and hearts long after they leave the arena.