Before Andrew Lloyd Webber became Lord Boring-Fart, he wrote an incredible, iconic musical. Well, rock opera. Probably his best. Almost certainly his edgiest. And let’s not exclude witticist, Tim Rice, from this equation. One can’t. It was, in effect, the gospel according to Tim ‘n’ ‘drew, replacing John’s version of events, on which it was based.
My first taste of JCS was in the very early 70s, as I recall. My parents had done some serious drinking with the next door neighbours, who’d brought over the English recording. Vinyl, of course. They’d lent it and we played it. Over and over. My upbringing, despite nominally Jewish and Christian parentage, was overwhelmingly secular. Oh sure, in those days, at primary school, I had to colour in pictures of a whitebread Jesus working his magic, in scripture classes, the same as everyone else. But it was JCS that gave me much, if not most, of my knowledge on the subject. Authoritative it’s not, I s’pose. But colourful, it is. And it puts a very sympathetic spin on numerous of the players in this potent drama.
My second taste was attending (twice, I think) Harry M. Miller and Robert Stigwood’s original Australian production, starring the likes of Jon English, Trevor White, John Paul Young and Michelle Fawdon (later replaced by Marcia Hines). It was an expensive set, with dramatic lighting design, and the considerable collective charisma of the above. It was, in short, exciting. The 90s revival, with new orchestrations by David Hirschfelder, starring farnsy, Stevens and Ceberano, somehow passed me by. So Riverside’s resident company, the Lyric Ensemble, had a lot of starry-eyed nostalgia, to live up to, Particularly as, from time to time, I still drag out the vinyl, to hear Ian Gillan’s son-of-God stylings.
The set, though roughly constructed, with its staggered platforms, steps and allusions to columns, gave a good-enough impression of Roman occupation. Judas enters. Chris Fung shows great promise as a better-than-budding musical star. He performs with commitment and confidence; his singing voice has a very appealing timbre. When he’s using it for singing. Though his role demands a certain vociferousness, he lapsed too much into an unhappy admixture of singing and shouting. He was a little like the little girl I once knew, with that pesky curl: when he was good, he was very, very good; when he was not, he was horrid. Which is to say, when he hit pitch, it was perfect, but he didn’t always hit the vocal mark. Not quite often enough, which made for some aurally jarring moments. If he relaxes his voice just a little, I’m sure everything will be fine. A low-dose chill pill is in order. But let’s cut the kid a break: this was opening night, and the nerves might’ve been a little frayed. Dramatically, he was pretty good, though his desperation didn’t show nearly as much as it should’ve, when pleading with the priesthood.
Thank God, I s’pose, and the divinely-inspired director, Anne Hart, for casting a physically credible Jesus, in the Mediterranean mould. I can’t tell you how over fair-haired, blue-eyed hippie Jesuses I am, when the reality is Yeshua probably looked more like Yasser Arafat than Brad Pitt, much as we might like it otherwise. And Nelson Padilla still has a certain, swarthy prettiness about him, not least vocally. As with other characters, it seems he’s been acting under instruction to emulate the cast from the recording I spoke of earlier: Padilla was doing his best Gillan emulation all evening; while he has the range and pitch-perfection, he doesn’t have the diaphragm. Nonetheless, Jesus had a very attractive voice and his dramatic delivery, overall, while arguably a little too low-key, showed admirable discipline in its restraint: it’s all too easy to be tempted to overplay the role of a psychotic carpenter. And, having just done my homework and dragged out the prized vinyl, I reckon Padilla actually had more expression and theatricality. And why shouldn’t he, as Gillan’s a singer, not an actor. So, Padilla’s Jesus is abetter reading of the libretto.
While the directorial decision to opt for correspondingly cookie-cut, copycat characterisations, across the boards, is, in one sense, comforting (at least to those of us who were teenaged, or older, in the 70s), it sets a very high bar for the cast. And for younger audience members, the reference is likely lost, in any case. Which begs the question, why not let the cast discover and exploit their own characters?
Emily Potts is tailormade for musicals and gave a very measured, finely-judged performance, as Mary Magdalene. Her singing is reliable and quite delightful; her acting, dependable also. It was, perhaps, a teency bit predictable for her to wear red and a little at odds with her otherwise demure, asexual demeanour, but that’s a tiny quibble.
Speaking of costume, it was one of the most effective and striking aspects of the whole production, even if the weapons were redundant and laughable.
One of the finest voices among the minor roles was Chris Price’s Simon Zealotes, even if he lacked the zeal and bravado his role implies. As with many of the cast, he didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, or the rest of his body: more physicality is implicated, especially where set and lighting are ostensibly static, such that all eyes are on the performers.
Similarly, Alex Spensieri pulled off a pretty good Peter: any vocal waverings were so minor as to be practically imperceptible. But he suffered a similar fate, in terms of lack of physical dynamics. As did Fred Hama’s Caiaphas, who struggled to push out the near-impossible bass-baritone unreasonably asked of him, resulting in faint, if not inaudible lyrics, at times. Yet he, like Jesus, was otherwise well-cast and was clearly doing his utmost. And he effected, methinks, a psychologically more complex and sensitive high priest than the cold, calculating, one-dimensional caricature on the lauded British recording.
Andrew Lindsay left a strong and memorable impression, as Annas; his vocal and theatrical chops were in fine fettle. Offsider priests, played by Fiona Kelly and Ian Johnson, looked like unforgiving arseholes, as well they should.
David Izzard has a winning role, as the Bacchanalian bastard king, Herod, a traitor to his people, and he delivers, too.
Christopher Bennie’s Pilate was one of the most convincing and engaging of all performances, in all respects. Yes, Pilate veritably soared.
Last, but by no means least, the chorus wasn’t always on song, but when it was, it was all one could’ve wished for.
Manu Prasad was leading the band which grappled not quite brilliantly, but impressively, with a very demanding score. There was the odd panicked conversation, a lag on piano, small rhythmic kerfuffles and a few fluffed cues and entrances, but, for the most part, it was as solid as the Colosseum. Well, as solid as the Colosseum used to be, in biblical times. Matt Bourne stood out, on guitar, while Steve Short’s bass was almost, well, a rock. Kane Wheatley’s synth was well-played, but a little too strident (maybe a programming issue). Who knows where one would have put them otherwise, but the band’s on-stage prominence was of questionable merit, since it threw too much visual focus onto them, particularly when the physical dynamics already discussed were so lacking.
But there were some imaginative directorial decisions which mitigated against flaws. The tap-dancing, cultured-pearl flappers in Herod’s court; the hands-on smearing of blood on Jesus’ back and torso, to suffice as lashes. Entertaining. Powerful. The most successful scene, since it endowed a palpable sense of anxiety and claustrophobia, was the one in which JC is besieged by beggars, lepers, the blind and otherwise afflicted.
Mind you, as my companion, in his first-ever exposure to this musical, too-rightly observed, the score is so potent as to carry even a poor production over the line. On this occasion, the rock musical became more musical (though from this benchmark it had a few too many lapses) than rock. It seems even Jesus has lost his edge.
But this was by no means a poor production: it had heart, sincerity; if not so much soul. Given the likely budget (which, by the look of things, was paltry), it was done well, with an ostensibly amateur cast.
Then again, if this is the resident company of the West’s pre-eminent theatre, oughtn’t we expect standards comparable with the big smoke? Hey, I’m just asking!
Finally, Loud And Clear’s Audio left plenty to be desired: the band too often well-and-truly overpowered vocals, which were, often, muddy. Big. Bad. No excuses.
Jesus was resurrected a little too early at curtain call and was chewing gum. BC, I presume, not PK. ‘Israel in 4BC had no mass communication’. Or manufactured confectionery.
The details: Jesus Christ Superstar plays four more shows at Riverside Theatres until Saturday, October 30. Tickets on the company website.