Superstar splendour

Jesus Christ Superstar (Lynch & Paterson)

Twelfth Night Theatre

July 9 – 18

Within minutes of Lynch & Paterson’s production of the mega musical cultural phenomenon “Jesus Christ Superstar”, the show’s triumph is clear. The Twelfth Night Theatre is appropriately staged so as to include showcase of the orchestra and the ‘Overture’ only entices with their expertise. Precision in the synchronisation of the accompanying ensemble’s dance movements confirms the professionalism of production and then Jesse Ainsworth’s final note in Judas’s ‘Heaven on Their Minds’ cements both the vocal calibre of the show’s performers and electrifying tone of the enduring soundtrack.

Set to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s pop-rock score, the sung-through musical’s story is loosely based on the Gospels’ account of the last week of Jesus’s life, from preparation for the arrival of him and his disciples in Jerusalem through to his crucifixion. It began life as a rock opera concept album in 1970 and it is wonderful to witness the production’s nod to this origin. A rich ‘70s aesthetic is evidenced through Anita Sweeney’s palette of earth-toned costumes, complimented by stage detailing, geometric designs and Bohemian hippie styling. And the realisation of the priests with glam rock allusions is iconic, especially when they rumble that “This Jesus Must Die”. Director Maureen Bowra’s nuanced choreography of the group’s smallest of isolated movements gives them a signature style that stands as one of the show’s highlights.

The highly dramatised story’s depiction of the political and interpersonal struggles between Judas and Jesus (Simon Chamberlain) not included in the Bible means that strong performers are required for these pivotal roles and in this regard Ainsworth and Chamberlain do not disappoint. Chamberlain is a clean-cut Jesus whose crisp vocals contrast nicely against Ainsworth’s rough rock star sounds. His portrayal of the freethinking leader is one of conviction, emotion and vocal intensity, particularly in the epic anthem ‘Gethsemane’. The powerful, emotionally-charged number in which Jesus wrestles with his doubts in the Garden of Gethsemane has been named by Andrew Lloyd Webber as the most difficult song to sing he has ever written and Chamberlain rises to its critical challenge in show of both belting desperation and vulnerability through falsetto. Indeed, his desperate, falsetto cry of ‘Why should I die?’ is goosebump inducing.  

As Judus, Ainsworth similarly has some of the musical’s most difficult tracks, appropriately given the plot’s focus on Judus’ dissatisfaction with the direction in which Jesus is steering his disciples. And from his first appearance, he commands the stage with his indignation. Samantha Sherrin is a standout as Mary Magdalene. Her vocals are strong and compelling, bringing warmth to the character in an empathetic performance. Her heartbreakingly vulnerable ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ in which Mary acknowledges that she is in love with Jesus, and how it frightens her, is another moving Act Two highlight.

There really are no weak links in the cast of performers. Shannon Foley layers Pilate with humanity as he satisfies public opinion by having Jesus whipped in ‘Trial Before Pilate’ before reluctantly agreeing to his crucifixion, and his Act One ballad, ‘Pilate’s Dream’ showcases his commanding operatic timbre. And a stellar Tom Markiewicz sparkles in the comic relief of Herod through the flamboyant King’s suggestive self-titled solo request of Jesus to prove his divinity. Ensemble energy is also high, especially in the short Act One, which includes an evangelical-like ‘Hosanna’ as Jesus greets the happy crowd in contrast to Caiaphas’ preceding declaration of the need for the leader of the twelve disciples’ death for the greater good, and the ensemble take their celebration into the stalls.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is a show of musical contrasts, such as when we are taken from floating flute sounds to a rocking guitar realisation in the prevailing ‘Damned for All Time”. And its dynamic score is powerfully conveyed courtesy of musical directors Samantha Paterson and Lucus D. Lynch, and under Lynch as conductor of the vigorous orchestra. The score is full of energy, but also tempered with emotional pauses to afford the audience chance to catch its breath. Strings notably lighten Mary’s tender anointment of Jesus in ‘Everything’s Alright’ and though ‘Superstar’ is not necessarily the spectacle that it could be, the orchestra makes it musically glorious from the first moments of its iconic opening fanfare.

While percussion propels a lot of the majestic score, its strings and brass sections crescendo us through the climatic crucifixion to the stirring instrumental ‘John Nineteen: Forty-One’ accompaniment of the stark image that ends the dramatic second act. After earlier bathing Judus’ betrayal in rich reds, Tom Dodds’ lighting design uses the elegance of bright white illumination to aid in transfixing the audience through this appreciation of the humanity at the heart of this time-honoured show, encouraging contemplation of its larger themes around faith.

While it may be a compact length for a musical, Lynch & Paterson’s pacy production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is jam packed with splendid reminders as to why the show has enjoyed such a long life. This is a well-crafted, well-performed and highly engaging version of the timeless rock musical. Its eclectic musical score is thrilling and its depiction of figures like Judas, Peter, Mary Magdalene and Pontius Pilate as flawed characters is absorbing. 

Photos c/o – PIF Productions

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