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.

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.

Songs You Didn’t Realise Are Actually Musical Numbers

Given you’re reading this, you probably have a decent knowledge of musicals and know these songs in their original showtune form, but you’re the exception. The average non-musical fan will not hesitate to complain about jukebox musicals creating terrible covers of their much loved pop/rock/ABBA songs and even Glee can anger tweens by not living up to the high standards of the Justin Bieber/Rebecca Black/Nicki Minaj song they’re covering. But we can complain too! And I’m not just talking about those crappy pop remixes (yes Gwen Stefani turning ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ into that). Songs specifically created for use in a musical have become popular after being covered by another popular artist. People recognise and even like the song without knowing they are in fact listening to a show tune.

One Night in Bangkok

From the musical: Chess

The act 2 opener for a musical about Chess world champions became a dance anthem when covered by Murray Head in 1984 which you might hear play at your local discothèque. More widely known today is the version covered by Mike Tyson in The Hangover 2 which was set in Bangkok.

Hey Big Spender

From the musical: Sweet Charity

Well known as a classic Shirley Bassey song but also covered by Peggy Lee and parodied by Homer Simpson encouraging people at a yard sale to “Spend some dough on table three.”

I Say a Little Prayer

From the musical: Promises, Promises

Dionne Warwick and Arethra Fraklin have both popularised this song but it’s probably known more by the young folk for its use in the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding. None of these versions touch on the latter scenes from the musical where the character is dumped and attempts suicide. Can’t imagine why.

Send In the Clowns

From the musical: A Little Night Music

Recorded by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins, it is rarely recognised as the creation of musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim. In fact Judy Collins won a Grammy for her cover of the song a year after the show had closed on Broadway. It has again been parodied by The Simpsons as Krusty sings alternate lyrics during his comeback special. The joke being that the song isn’t actually about clowns.

I’ll Never Fall in Love Again

From the musical: Promises, Promises

Very recognisable and covered many times but most notably by Bobbie Gentry, Dionne Warwick and Ella Fitzgerald. This song and all others from the musical were written by Burt Bacharach so fans of his (if they exist) will also know them.

The Impossible Dream (The Quest)

From the musical: Man of la Mancha

A moving song that is repeatedly used to inspire. Note its recent use at the end of Behind the Candelabra to add that uplifting ending, though it really was one of Liberace’s performance pieces. Also to sell Honda Cars.

In fact musical numbers have appeared in many advertisements…

Originally written for the musical Sweet Charity.

Originally written for the hippie musical Hair.

Originally written for the musical Annie Get Your Gun.

I Will Always Love You

From the Musical: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

People know this song as sung by Whitney Huston in The Bodyguard. The more knowledgeable may know it was originally Dolly Parton’s song. What they may not know is that Dolly Parton wrote it for her character to sing in the film musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The song isn’t in the original stage musical but it’s still sung by a brothel owner and former prostitute with Dolly Parton sized breasts.

No Matter What

From the Musical: Whistle Down the Wind

The world knows this song as a Boyzone classic but it is in fact the act 1 finale of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The song acts as a promise to love someone “no matter what” and the lyrics seem to be describing some sort of Romeo and Juliet love affair. You’d be way off if you thought that. The musical is about an escaped killer who hides in a barn in a small town. When small children find him and ask who he is, he replies with the expletive Jesus Christ. So the children think he is Jesus and sing this song promising to love the escaped killer “no matter what.”

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber

The Lyric Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“And The Money Kept Rolling in”

A musical revue of Lord Lloyd’s most famous numbers and his other contributions to musical theatre.

The phenomenon of Andy Webber is not one that you can easily escape when you love musical theatre. Say what you will, the man can write a show tune and has earned unimaginable sums of money doing so. Here we were presented with another opportunity to give him more of our well-earned cash. But it seems our ticket went towards more than just talented Australian actors and a chair as the set was made entirely of giant LCD screens and light bulbs. The poster for each show appeared as they sung to handily let us know what we were listening to. The man of the hour himself even appeared on screen to talk about his work but unfortunately only twice. And as one who hates technology taking over, I took delight in noting that one of the screens froze and shut down before the end of the show.

Picking and choosing songs from Andy’s shows is not an easy task. On the one hand he has classics like ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ and ‘Memory’ that people outside the world of musical theatre may be drawn in to see. They were in luck with simple bog-standard issues of these old hits. Yet the hard-core fans are always after that something extra, luckily we were supplied with tastes of his latest work and new interpretations of some classics. The promise on the poster of some Love Never Dies songs was certainly a draw card for me. The song ‘Till I Hear You sing’ cannot be performed enough. As many times as I had listened to Ramin Kimarloo sing from my CD player, a real performance was such a treat to Australian audiences who had a while to go before they could see the show in Melbourne. The song is destined to become another classic. The same cannot be said for the actual song ‘Love Never Dies’ which simply seemed wooden. The song is great in the musical but without the knowledge of the situation, it’s a pretty bland song. We were also treated to a more hammed up version of ‘On This Night of A Thousand Stars’ and blown away by a rendition of ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ which was shockingly that actresses only solo. They did well to skim over his less successful work, with only a song or two from Tell Me on a Sunday, The Woman in White and Starlight Express. But including Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat from Cats may have been an oversight. Everyone has their favourites so there will be some disappointment over what was or wasn’t sung. For me the sins of omission include ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye‘ from Sunset Boulevard and every other song in The Phantom of the Opera.

The LCD screens were put to their best use during ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ They stole the beautiful images from the movie for setting (which shows the film version has at least one use). Better still was the performance itself. In the actual show the song is played while the actors float above on the raff or prepare to make their iconic entrance into the lair. As much as I love The Phantom of the Opera, I regret not being able to see the actors for half of this brilliant song. Here was my one opportunity and luckily I was graced with a seasoned Phantom. Boasting a powerful voice and the right emotional pull, the song was — as it should be — the highlight of the night.

 

Cats

The Lyric Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“Well, the theatre is certainly not what it was”

Cats sing about what kind of cats they are… that’s all. There really is no linear plot for this one.

The infamous musical that gave comedians material for 18 years: could it really be as bad as they joshed? It remains the second longest running musical on Broadway so someone must have liked it. With all the notoriety of this show and me being a musical nut, I felt compelled to determine for myself, buying tickets when it blew into my hometown.

The main problem with the show is its subject matter. Various cats sing various songs with varying levels of amusement. I’ve never owned a cat so there could be several cat jokes or feline parodies I didn’t quite catch but the universal nature of the show has been attributed to its success (along with the appeal for tourists who don’t need to know English to follow it). Gillian Lynne‘s choreography is stunning along with the beautifully detailed sets and costumes that seem to only come with Megamusicals. The overture is neat and there are some pretty catchy numbers such as ‘Mungojerrie And Rumpleteazer.’ The show stopper is of course the song ‘Memory‘ which they tease us with excerpts from throughout the show. Sung properly, the song does not disappoint. But then there are the cats you just don’t care for. The second act opens with a theatre cat recalling his life, acting out the theatre’s opera and then reprising his previous song. This is where all the jokes stem from. Cats is not the amazing show its record breaking success may suggest, but neither is it deserving of its reputation as joke fodder.