Jesus Christ Superstar Arena Spectacular

Brisbane Entertainment Centre

“Everything’s alright, yes everything’s fine.”

In the days leading up to *spoiler alert* Jesus’ death, this musical takes a look at the human experiences of his followers, enemies and the superstar himself.

The story of Jesus has entertained people for two thousand years. The musical Jesus Christ Superstar added a contemporary feel that has lasted over 40 years. Frankly, a modern-day revival of Jesus Christ Superstar was more unnecessary than the latest Spiderman reboot. The musical’s great achievement was in humanising the characters of the story, painting Jesus as a social crusader who could be the leader of any group at any time. Other productions have drawn parallels between Jesus and other contemporary leaders before; however, this show took the idea that what happened then could happen now and ran with it faster than Usain Bolt, leaving all subtlety back at the start line. To portray Jesus as the leader of a 99% style protest group, the show had news reports on protests, an actual protest, the disciples pitching up tents, Simon wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, Molotov cocktails being thrown, Jesus addressing the crowd with a megaphone and activist slogans and posters filling the big screen. It’s an interesting take and certainly applicable but the material is adaptable enough to new approaches without having to constantly hit audience members over the head with every protest group cliché. The production itself demonstrates that the material doesn’t need to be overflowing with contemporary references to make this interpretation work. Caiaphas and the priests are already presented as established authority figures in the score so all it takes is some suits, a boardroom desk and a secretary for the priests to appear as corporate men, the established authority in today’s world.

Apart from providing comic relief, the main purpose of ‘King Herod’s Song’ is to show Pilate’s reluctance to sentence Jesus himself. The song does feel out of place, not just because of its contrasting musical style but because once it is over, Pilate’s scene with Jesus continues as if the song was never there. ‘King Herod’s Song’ has remained in the show because it is a great song with such possibilities, this interpretation being one of the greatest. King Herod is the host of a talk show and Jesus is the topic of the day — is he a lord or is he a fraud? Vote now! Not only does this fit in with the honky tonk style music but it adds contemporary criticism. While it seems incongruous for the son of God to appear on daytime TV, that is how flippantly we handle serious matters today.

Casting Andrew O’Keefe (a well-known TV host) as King Herod adds dimensions to the role but it wasn’t the greatest performance. If King Herald would have let his showman mask down for a moment and showed his true biased opinion on Jesus, or even acted somewhat menacing, it would have been much better. Thankfully there was more impressive Australian talent on-stage. The applaud Jon Stevens received as he stepped into the stage told me there were some hard-core Jesus Christ Superstar fans in the audience who remembered his brilliant performance as Judas in Australia’s 1992 revival. In the smaller role of Pilate, he reminds us why he is so revered.

Tim Minchin playing Judus would have attracted more than a few people to the production yet it wasn’t the desperate kind of stunt casting that led to a Jonas brother playing Marius in Les Miserables. Minchin boasts musical theatre writing credits that assured me he was familiar with the medium and he is an accomplished musician and singer. Oh boy, can Tim Minchin sing: high, low and long notes all in rapid succession. Imagine then, the disappointment in finding out that he couldn’t act correspondingly. His movements weren’t big enough for the stage and none of the character’s inner torment was displayed outwardly or theatrically. I have never seen such a complete lack of stage presence before. The big screen did show signs of distress in his eyes but for the most part Judas’ sole disposition appeared to be grumpy. Even Judas’s big finish ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ doesn’t have any of the energy or showmanship you’d expect from such a performer singing such a song. Other reviews praised his performance so I did wonder if I caught him on an off night (he had just lost out on a Tony Award to Cyndi Lauper of all people) but the recent DVD release confirms his grumpy Judas was a regular thing. I genuinely hope that this performance style was the director’s decision and that Minchin will never again find himself miscast like that again.

The production labels itself as an “Arena Spectacular” and while there are some great stunts, lighting and props, the show does fall short of being a true spectacular event. If you’ve read about the original Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar (directed by Tom O’Horgan), you will know that it was critiqued heavily for large symbolic nonsensical staging. If you haven’t read about it, I’ll tell you now it involved a flying bridge made of animal bones, a giant hollowed out dragon’s head, banners of a see-through Jesus doing a headstand and Judas descending from a giant butterfly in a silver lamè bikini. Take that all in for a moment. The arena specular may not be elaborately staged but it never lets the characters or score become buried by gimmicks, in fact much of the spectacularness of it all comes from great performances such as Ben Forster’s ‘Gethsemance.’ Yet still there could have been better use of the talented chorus, huge stage and the big screen which mainly provided backdrop settings, displayed close ups or showed tweets about Jesus.

This production was good but there is yet to be a definitive incarnation of Jesus Christ Superstar. For a story that has lasted so long, it would be silly to think this show won’t age well in the future, but once the whole economy thing gets settled (in a few decades) this production will seem out of date. I would still recommend buying the DVD for the timeless performances and score, if you can stop yourself from picturing Tim Minchin as Judus descending onto the stage in a silver lamè bikini.

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Love Never Dies

The Regent Theatre Melbourne

“Coney Isle. Miracle on miracle. Speed and Sound all around.”

10 years after The Phantom of the Opera, Christine is asked to sing at the fantastical Coney Island with her husband Raoul and son Gustave. She soon finds this glittering world belongs to the Phantom who has brought her here in a final bid to win back her love.

Everyone has surely read that the ‘retooled’ production of Love Never Dies in Melbourne is a triumph for Australian Musical Theatre and that Andrew Lloyd Webber is quoted many times in saying “this is one of the finest productions I’ve seen of my work, anywhere.” Promotional items also showed off regarding the 300 costumes and 5,000 light bulbs that would dazzle the audience. Yet I remained unconvinced that the show would be something great. I had over a year ago – with excited frenzy ­­— purchased the Love Never Dies album and my disappointment then was not something I was willing to go through again. The show in London had not been saved by spectacles on-stage because it was teamed up with a lamentable mess of a book.

When Promotional items say this version has been ‘retooled’ they are being polite. They thankfully took an axe to that first act saving us from giving it the nickname ‘Paint Never Dries’ as it received in London. The show is far closer to the original Phantom then I could have hoped. The London production opened with Meg desperately in love with The Phantom and Raoul as an abusive drunk which was very distancing for fans. This show eases the audience into the situation by explaining how they occurred first. Instead of dumping the audience with changed setting, style of music and characters, this show begins with The Phantom singing ‘Till I Hear You Sing’ which acts as a perfect continuation from ‘The Music of the Night’. The only songs that deter from the original style are now the vaudevillian performances by Meg to the crowd at Coney Island. The book has also perfected weaving together the original with the sequel as old lines are echoed in new scenarios — once again “Things have changed, Raoul”.

Coney Island looks entirely the creation of The Phantom: a magician and architect with a flair for the strange and grand. His presence is always felt with masks and skulls in the costumes and scenery, not to mention the return of the symbol playing monkey. You can read the facts about how many costumes and light bulbs there are but the effect of them on-stage are mind blowing, especially when as a fan you can spot the various nods to the original. The sets work well within the chorus numbers but are easily played down for the more dramatic moments.

The book has been carefully crafted and provides an emotional pull equal to the spectacle. Much more explicit in this show is the effect that Christine’s decision will have on her career as a singer, she is choosing between her husband and the man that inspires her voice after all. The pacing does slow in the second act which is entirely built upon the tension of who Christine will choose. If you don’t care for the characters, then this just won’t have the same effect on you as it does a fan.

I would have seen the show in London (had it played long enough) because of the magnificent talents of Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess who have thankfully had their talents recorded and filmed in the 25th anniversary production of  The Phantom of the Opera. Ben Lewis who plays The Phantom in this production does a good job. Just good. It is a difficult role to pull off. Many greats have played the Phantom in various ways, from Warlow’s grand serene Phantom to Crawford’s more fatherly and Karimloo’s hellbent, but this show doesn’t display the emotional complexities of the character that took up so much of the first. Lewis is bound to playing a generic Phantom. He has a powerful yet expressive voice though I was just as pleased with his physicality in the role. The one fault I would give is that Madame Giry couldn’t sing even with the key changed for her but thankfully she didn’t have to sing much.

The production really is a testament to the talents of Australian Musical Theatre and while there is a filmed version on DVD, such a show has a far greater effect seen live at a beautiful theatre.