IT’S a bumper year for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Phantom has hit 33 years and counting in the West End, School of Rock is packing them in, Cats is due out in cinemas this December, there’s a new production of Joseph, and Jesus Christ Superstar has just opened at the Barbican Theatre, London.
Superstar, as it’s known, is an oscillation of a show. First a concept album in 1970, it was then a Pittsburgh concert to 12,000 and a big Broadway show the year after, with a pared-back version for London in 1972 (Shostakovich apparently saw it twice). Since then, it’s been a film; various productions including large-scale arena format in 2004; and, most recently, on stage at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park over 2016-17, then to America, and now back in London “re-imagined” for the Barbican.
As the curtain rises on the double-height simple-set frame of iron girders, happily a few fake trees lean through in homage to the park-production provenance. Instead of open space above, some disjointed girder crosses help to make a visual point, echoing the off-centre cross on the stage which acts as thrust, ramp, and runway. It all loses something in interaction with the cosmos and nature through moving indoors (admittedly, when I last saw the outdoor show we had a 30-minute pause owing to rain), but it also gains in intimacy, even claustrophobia.
Clocking in at less than two hours, this is essentially a Good Friday narrative, the Passion according to “Lord Andrew”. But the influences make it more like York Mystery meets Glastonbury Festival. The score itself brings plenty of melody and variety, and square in succession to Hair and Tommy. With Tim Rice’s snappy lyrics, it is 95 minutes of well-executed rock opera. That’s partly because it rips through the story at pace. The second, more intense, half is where the interesting questions and the staging come alive.
Overall, it is stimulating and thoughtful. The psychodrama of Ricardo Afonso’s muscular Judas shows the agony of betrayal (set up neatly with him dipping his hands into the chest before the interval; they emerge dripping in silver paint). Some licence is taken. For the sake of a lyric “nor Judas, nor the twelve” it implies the former was not one of the latter.
Pilate (X Factor winner Matt Cardle, all mascara and menace) has a dream and not his wife. Mary Magdalene’s set piece “I don’t know how to love him” turns the old canard of erotic love into a new sense of discipleship, sung hesitantly by Sallay Garnett. Samuel Buttery, meanwhile, portrays Herod as a Leigh Bowery tribute-act to Adèle. It’s camp and screamy and works, like Cavin Cornwall’s deep-voiced, slippery, political Caiaphas.
Director Timothy Sheader and designer Tom Scutt glorify the glam rock. Ed Bussey’s expert band is in full view on stage across the top level of the set. Priestly staffs are upside-down microphone stands. When Judas commits his dramatic suicide, it ends with a microphone dangling in spotlight, the ultimate drop.
Costume design gives us streetwear to match the girders. Baggy hoodies and sweatpants echo first-century dress. When Robert Tripolino as Jesus comes forward for his Act II “Gethsemane” soliloquy with a guitar across his chest, he could easily be a contemporary worship-band leader. It is at this point that his rather thin-reed depiction opens out and he strides through the rest of the action with pathos and force.
The “39 Lashes” which follow the trial are unbearably painful as we hear each percussive snap and see successive glitter bursts. The beam of the cross is a mic stand, and Jesus is attached with sound cables. Once hoisted aloft, the famous “Superstar” refrain haunts like a question.
By now, the sound has reached fever pitch, the driving rhythms push relentlessly to conclusion, Drew McOnie’s energetic choreography is at the limit. The muted end (John 19.41) lets the cross shine forth.
As this musical approaches its 50th anniversary, there’s proof it can still mine depths and proclaim the gospel afresh to a new generation.
Jesus Christ Superstar is at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS, until 24 August. Phone 020 7638 8871. www.barbican.org.uk/theatre