Jesus Christ Superstar (Beenleigh Theatre Group)
Crete Street Theatre
February 10 – 25
The Crete Street Theatre stage is affronted by two distinct and appropriately placed sides in Beenleigh Theatre Group’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”. To the left are fist-in-the-air fliers of the Nazareth party encouraging citizens to fight the power, while to the right there is Roman Party political propaganda promising that we can ‘Count on Caiaphas’, who sees Jesus as a threat to the nation. Between them, things open upon infamous apostle Judas Iscariot (a committed Isaac Brown), who sings of his concern at the rising prolife and increasingly crazed followers of Jesus, predicting that they may threaten the powerful empire to the point of punishment in an impassioned ‘Heaven on Their Minds’.
Judas is singing from his room in Hotel Gethsemane, in reposition of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s contemporised depiction of the final days of the life of Jesus Christ to a more recent reimagining. This fits alongside the production’s theme of enhancing the musical’s commentary on celebrity culture from before celebrity culture was even a thing, with, for example, modernising touches of the mass communication that Israel in 4BC lacked. While apostles with mobile phones obviously in-hand and a phone-lit musical number are maybe unnecessary, King Herod’s (Cassie Baan) Hardline TV show that appears on screen in lengthy pre-show and interval loops works well in drawing modern parallels through the King’s provocation of fellow Galileans to question the buzz around the upstart Jesus of Nazareth (Sophia Dimopoulos), including the authenticity of his birth certificate, and creates a nice arc to Act Two’s catchy ‘Herod’s Song’, which sees Baan leaning into the hammy mocking of its caricature as the flamboyant King pressures Jesus live on air to prove his divinity by performing his fabled miracles.
Despite the frequent, perhaps again unnecessary, set piece movement by ‘hotel staff’, the sung-through rock opera moves quickly, helped along by Donovan Wagner and Kaela Gray’s lighting design which, on its own, creates appearance of a hotel elevator in which Judas is propositioned towards his ultimate betrayal, and takes us from a seedy hotel scene into the darkness of Jesus’ torment. And while its titular number is maybe more lacklustre than full-on focal-point, there are some memorable moments within the musical, such as creation of the tableau of Jesus’ final supper with his disciples and the colour-themed nods within Natalie Jean and Hannah Collines’ costume design.
Kylie Davis-Davenport’s choreography works well when advancing the narrative such as when Jesus’ rag tag follows are being turned away from discovery of ‘What’s the Buzz?’ and when Mary Madeline (Abigail Ellerton) anoints Jesus towards spa relaxation with instruction that ‘Everything’s Alright’ so they should treasure the comforts they have. At other times, however, it serves as more of a distraction to the main focus, when representing in interpretive dance and movement themes from an already obvious plot element or stylising a pivotal musical moment such as Jesus’ 39 lashes without any grounding explanation for those perhaps unfamiliar with the detail of New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life from arrival in Jerusalem to his crucifixion.
Restraint is rightly shown in stunning realisation of Jesus’ emotionally-charged musical soliloquy ‘Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)”. Dimopoulos gives this crucial moment for her character everything that it requires as Jesus wrestles with doubts about the success of her mission, demands to know why she should continue given what awaits and ultimately surrenders to God’s will. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself has called this the most difficult song to sing he has ever written and Dimopoulos absolutely does this assessment justice, making it a standout moment of equal parts defiant conviction, potent desperation and ultimate dignity. While her vocals are well-pitched and she brings out the conflict and fear of her character’s plight throughout the production, this is, without doubt, the highlight of the show, thanks to the depth and soar of her vocals, and the considered lighting that backdrops her performance.
In support, Brown effectively conveys the internal conflict driving Judas’s actions, showing control in his lower vocal registers, but not the belt that Act Two’s ‘Damned for All Time’ deal with his betrayal perhaps requires, in keeping with its riff-driven rock sounds. Ellerton, gives us a compelling Mary, instilling the character with both strength and vulnerability through touching subtlety. While her ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ is another of the production’s great moments, she also creates some solid harmonies with Georgia Cooper as Peter in their ‘Could We Start Again, Please?’ wish to return to a time of hope and peace. Justin Harreman makes for a strong Governor Pontius Pilate, who holds Jesus’ fate in his hands. Also excellent are Daniel McNamara as High Priest Caiaphas and Michael Mills as his chief advisor Annas. McNamara’s bass vocals are especially deep and rich in their Act One duet of conclusion that for the greater good ‘This Jesus Must Die’
Ever since it first appeared on the musical scene in 1971, “Jesus Christ Superstar” has been considered sacrilegious to select conservative Christian groups and there are sure to be some troubled by the idea of re-gendering Jesus as this production has done. Apart from jarring the pronouns of Mary’s lovely ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ lament of how her feelings for Jesus frighten her, that Jesus is female, is not the most significant part of how this story is told. What stands out most is her crucial role in an impending election and what takes shape from that in terms of commentary on a person becoming more important than their deeds.As Director Kaela Gray notes in the show’s program, “this production isn’t a commentary on religion or theology; rather, it’s using the millennia-old story (as told through now-vintage tunes) to carry an incredibly modern message.”
While, at times, devotion to his modernity becomes unnecessarily detailed in distraction, what remains clear is the distinction of Lloyd-Webber’s catchy 1970s-inspired high-energy rock score, especially when kept in original key throughout. From the bombast of its epic shredding electric-guitar-filled opening overture onwards, the dynamic score is brought to rocking life by onstage JCS orchestra, under baton of Musical Director Benjamin Richards (also on keys). The perfectly balanced David Chivers (keys 2), Joel Sanchez-Carn (guitar), Phil Kan (bass) and Abbie Chadirchi (drums / percussion) are hidden away underneath the staging’s raised platform and it is unfortunate that there is no opportunity to ever seen them or rightfully acclaim their talents.