Ian’s 5* Review:
Tonight we went to see the Jesus Christ Superstar Arena Tour at The Hydro. It was absolutely outstanding. HUGE thanks to Ruth for getting me tickets for my birthday.
I’m going to review this as 5*, which for me means that if on the way out the venue someone said “we’re going to run the show again right now – want to buy a ticket?” I would say “YES!”. It was that good.
The musical arrangement has changed very little from the 20th Anniversary London cast recording, which I considered to be almost flawless vocally before today. The setting has been modernised however, using in very 21st century imagery related to the anti-poverty movements in the UK, Greece and elsewhere during the financial crisis.
To me Judas (not Jesus) is the star of Jesus Christ Superstar. It is by far the most consistently technically challenging role, and a good Judas makes the show while a poor one kills it. Tim Minchin was beyond brilliant – I lack the words to express how good he was. His vocal we intense and emotional from start to end, showing huge range in every respect – whisper to yell, low to high, soft to harsh. His descent from worry into confusion and despair was painful to watch. He completely owned the part, and has ruined it for anyone else. He was the definitive Judas.
Mel C’s rendition of “I don’t know how to love him” nearly had me in tears. Her portrayal of Mary was as a more powerful than I have seen before, but it really worked and her performance was outstanding.
Ben Forster’s performance as Jesus was very good in the first half but felt overshadowed by the brilliance of Tim Minchin and Mel C. That made it all the more surprising when he kicked “Gethsemane” out of the arena at the start of the second part. Intense, emotional and with vocal technique not far off what Tim Minchin was delivering. An excellent Jesus all round, and perhaps a definitive version of Gethsemane.
The rest of the cast were also brilliant – I didn’t notice a single missed note or slipped beat from anyone. Even by Broadway or West End standards they were conspicuously good. Ciaphus stood out with a glorious bass voice and sinister attitude, Pontious Pilate wonderfully straightforward, and Annas suitably slimy. Chris Moyles played well to the crowd and put in a very respectable performance, but he didn’t stand out in this company.
The staging felt much bigger than could be accommodated in a theatre, and although in some ways it is quite simple (there are relatively few elements of scenery) it is stunningly effective. The stage is backed by a huge video screen, and I have seldom seen one used so effectively or with such variety. Sometimes the projected images blend with the physical sets, sometimes they are an abstract complement to the lighting, sometimes they are live video close-ups of the performances. The live video is very artfully, especially in the first meeting between Judas and Ciaphus where the use of clever shooting angles and focus is stunning.
The sound on the vocals was consistently excellent, with the ensemble well balanced with the leads. Given the dynamic vocal range and pitch range of some of the performers, this must have been a huge challenge. The only real criticism I can offer for the whole experience is that at times the band sound felt a little soggy – it lacked a certain crispness especially on the drums.
The Hydro only opened a couple of nights ago, and it seems like a brilliant venue. Most of the seats look like they will have a good, although as usual it will be a bit limited from right at the back in the gods, or right round the side. It seems to be running pretty smoothly, and the new parking garage is great (although some signs wouldn’t go amiss). Getting out of the car park was a bit of a free for all, but better than the old SECC parking arrangements as you can pay before the gig rather than everyone trying to pay at once after. Traffic onto the main routes seemed to flow more freely too.
Ruth’s 5* Review
I have always liked Jesus Christ Superstar a lot. I wouldn’t say it is really a cool musical to love (if there is such a thing) but I’ve thought the songs were catchy and sat well together, and the lyrics were witty and intelligent. But it is a tough one to perform – very technically challenging – and consequently productions of Jesus Christ Superstar can be terrible, or perhaps worse, baffling. I’ve seen a few attempts of varying quality.
A lot of people appear to assume that if you like a musical you will automatically love any production of it, but I tend to be less forgiving and have high expectations for the ones that I like. My expectations are rarely met.
I must have seen a hundred professional productions of musicals in my time – West End, Broadway and touring productions. People often ask me which was my favourite and I find it hard to say. Few are perfect, many have excellent elements and are let down on others. I usually say the 2003 West End revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie was the best.
Well now the Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour is the best. This production was absolutely exceptional and it exceeded my expectations in every respect. It is a tremendous example of how you should perform in a musical, how you should stage a musical, and how you should revive a musical for a contemporary audience. And crucially the vocal performances were super-strong all round.
This musical was first performed in 1971 and it would be so easy for it to look old fashioned. But they’ve done something amazing with this one. I have never seen such a contemporary staging of anything. It just felt so *now*, as if it were written last week.
Firstly it looked great. It was all set up to make one think of the recent anti-poverty movements and protests with dreadlocks and tents and gritty urban imagery. The set was quite simple, but was supplemented with projections of images, text, and live video footage. It was very creative and the timings and framing were impeccable. This was often done very cleverly to increase or decrease perceptions of the size of the stage, to make it appear that there were more people on stage, and for tongue in cheek embellishments. Stuff came down from above. People flew. And there was fire.
But it was the cast in combination with the music and lyrics that really made it.
The chorus were spot on, tight and accurate and there were excellent supporting performances from darkly suited-and-booted Ciaiphas and Pilate.
The part of Herod was clearly written for a cameo to bring a bit of razzmatazz, and Chris Moyles has a decent go. Perhaps in other productions I’d have been raving about him, but despite being absolutely good enough he was thoroughly out-charismaed by the three leads.
TAFKA Sporty Spice, Melanie C, plays a defiant Mary Magdalene with a strangely sordid sensuality as befitting a contemporary protester-cum-prostitute. Her solo pieces were quite touching and she really captured the essence of a woman who was acting completely out of character because she felt compelled to love a ‘different’ man, and was totally thrown off-balance by the whole idea.
Jesus was played by Ben Forster, winner of ITV’s Superstar. He gave a very credible performance throughout, and again in any normal production he would have stood out. To start with I thought he was a little weak in the way of his Jesus-ness. Yes, a bit cocky, a bit smug, but he wasn’t quite dominating the stage and I wasn’t sure I’d have followed him. But after the Last Supper, symbolically alone with his thoughts, Ben Forster kicked the arse out of the song Gethsemene by taking us through the five stages of grief in just one song as Jesus accepted his fate. A decisive but eerie delivery of the conclusion of this thought process – “take me now before I change my mind” – was for me the highlight of the whole production. Following this, the stoic acceptance of what was yet to come and then what eventually came was masterful. Having decided, he stood there and took it. It was brave, and it was terrifying.
However, Tim Minchin as Judas acted everyone else off the stage. He simply owned it. From the first song he set Judas out as being a man in turmoil, who simply didn’t know what to do for the best. He took us from confused desperation (“I remember when this whole thing began. No talk of God then, we called you a man. And believe me, my admiration for you hasn’t died. But every word you say today gets twisted round some other way. I am frightened by the crowd for we are getting much too loud”) to chaotic despair (“I have no thought at all about my own reward. I really didn’t come here of my own accord. Just don’t say I’m damned for all time”), to desolation (“God I’ll never ever know why you chose me for your crime”), and out the other side to a taunting and malevolent hallucination of a narrator (“Every time I look at you I don’t understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand. You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned”). He was physical, he was emotional, and his vocals were exceptional. He made me believe that if I was in his position I would have done the same thing, and he made me believe that Judas should be the seminal role that every musical theatre actor should aspire to play.
I’ve read the source book, I’ve had a culturally Christian upbringing, and I’ve seen this show several times and listened to the CD even more. I know what it is about. But the depth of the performances in this production made me see new things the story – or perhaps more accurately in the songs and in this interpretation. Certainly I felt it more deeply.
The relationship between Jesus and Judas. Complicated. Love/hate. Uncertainty around whether roles were pre-defined by God or Fate or whether free will led them to this unpleasant conclusion.
The scale of the betrayal. By Judas, by Peter, by the fair-weather friends who were happy to take from Jesus when the times were good and dump him when the going got hard.
The juxtapositions. The major “Hey JC, JC you’re alright by me” to the minor “Hey JC, JC won’t you die for me?”. The silliness of King Herod amongst the precariousness and severity of Jesus’s position. The rumination around who could, or would, or should be remembered for what transpired. Both for Jesus: “I must be mad thinking I’ll be remembered”, and yet of Judas: “What you have done will be the saving of everyone. You’ll be remembered forever for this.”
When Jesus died (spoiler!) and the solar eclipse settled over the cross, a light swept across the audience signifying both the exquisiteness of Jesus’s sacrifice and the complicity of everyone who stood by and let it happen. It was for us, but it was by us.
Overall, the production was laden with doom from end to end, with a feeling that fate and destiny were out of control and rolling towards something horrific. It was uncomfortable viewing, it was touching and complicated and awful and wonderful. I was often open mouthed, equally in awe of the performances and stunned by the plot. If it hadn’t felt so contemporary it wouldn’t have been so shocking.
I loved it, and if someone had given me the option I would have walked straight back in and watched it again.
The cost of tickets for this show is steep and we were lucky enough to get a two-for-one deal on top price tickets (usually £72). But this was well worth the full price, and more.