Forgive me father Andrew Lloyd-Webber for I have sinned terribly. I have reached the ripe old age of twenty-five before watching Jesus Christ Superstar and it was a terrible and grievous sin.
I know, I know, okay? It’s a classic. Which is exactly why I’ve never seen it before. There will always be another canche, right? There’s always a musical that’s closing sooner, or with some performer I like in, or… excuses, excuses. But finally, at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, I saw it, and that production was clearly blessed by a higher power – and I was an atheist, until last Saturday. Do I sound like I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect? I am actually toning it down, just ask my editor and partner in crime. Her eardrums might start bleeding if I mention Jesus Christ Superstar once more.
I don’t think I have fallen in love with a musical this quickly or this hopelessly since seeing Les Mis when I was ten. The whole score has been playing non-stop in my head (or headphones) since the show. Not even Hamilton got me this bad (although I haven’t seen Hamilton live yet, so it’s not a level playing field. I’ll let you know on the 6th December – yes, I’m totally bragging here).
But now onto the part where I seriously and professionally review the details of this Olivier Award winning (for Best Musical Revival) production, in order of importance.
- There was glitter.
Even putting aside my personal penchant for all things shiny, I can and will praise the use of glitter. There were highly stylised, artificial visuals that enhanced the sense of realism rather than taking from it. The whole set was rough rusty coloured metal, industrial and cold, which looked strangely appropriate in the middle of the still luxuriant greenery of Hyde Park, like it could have been abandoned there years ago and nearly surrendered to the vegetation. Most of the costumes were in varying shades of grey, modern and with a feel of fancy, hipsterish gymwear, too coordinated to be casual, but too casual to feel excessively costume-y. It was, overall, cold, contrasting with the energy and passion of the characters moving through it all. But this only heightened the moments when idol-like dancers covered in gold moved about or when the Priests appeared with their robes waving in the wind.
During Trial Before Pilate, the crowd viciously turn on Jesus (Declan Bennett), taking turns inflicting the thirty-nine lashes… by throwing handfuls of glitter at a realistically bleeding Jesus. Alex’s first comment about it was: “I was really worried about how painful it would be for Jesus to get glitter into his wounds.”
Only afterwards she remembered that the blood was also fake, or maybe that the glitter was meant to be a real lashing. There is a delightful semiotic layering going on in that scene – which I could properly appreciate only after I stopped feeling it so deeply. Because, still, even with the glitter, the religion, the fiction, every single character feels tragically human – kudos to the writing and to the cast both for that.
- Judas was made of sunshine.
Every single time Judas (Joshua Dever, the first understudy – ironic name for a Judas, by the way) came on stage or started singing the sun would appear from behind the clouds. Which brings me quite nicely to the awesomeness of open air performances in general, and of this one in particular. It felt more powerful, like it couldn’t be contained. It didn’t get lost in the excess of space, like sometimes happens with open air performances. This one absolutely owned the whole environment. My own lingering impression that the weather somehow moved accordingly to stage directions is itself a manifestation of this.
Most importantly, the whole production felt fresh. Relevant. It’s true that I had no previous experience of Jesus Christ Superstar, but it is now forty years-old and artwork younger than that can start showing cracks in the paint. This musical, though, seems to have aged incredibly well.
While it is not easy to entertain, and I will forever defend any piece of media that chooses to do only that, I know this musical went above and beyond. It threw me off guard and then spinned me around completely, and it is a testament to the depth of its effect on me the fact that I still cannot completely articulate it into words.
But one thing is sure: I won’t miss a revival of Jesus Christ Superstar ever again.
[written by Alice di Mattia; edited by Alessandra Cenni]