Musical theatre’s elder statesmen, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, are now so much a part of the establishment that it’s easy to forget how these prodigious wunderkinds started out back in the 1960s.
They knocked out Joseph for a 15-minute school production before being offered a £20-a-week pukka job and coming up with their first big production, Jesus Christ Superstar. That’s not a bad start to anyone’s career.
It was a springboard to success. Forty-six years later Jesus Christ Superstar has become legendary, every song instantly recognisable, a global rock opera phenomenon that has stood the test of time.
So what’s the buzz about Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s revival of the show for its big summer musical? I’ll tell you what’s a happening. It’s sensational.
Okay, the costumes look like they’ve been bought in a job lot from All Saints – all grey and muddy hues of trackies, hoodies and vests – but this dazzling production will be a big crowd-pleaser. Last night’s opening night audience couldn’t wait to jump to their feet for a standing ovation.
For those of us old enough to remember when JCS first came out (was it really 46 years ago?) that first guitar riff will bring goosebumps.
The musical, always destined for the stage, first came out as a concept album and its powerful, catchy, impressive songs were a formative part of my teens (and yes, I still have my album).
It’s almost unheard of for every single song in a musical to gain public recognition but that was achieved here – From the big production numbers like Superstar and Hosanna to Mary Magdalene’s haunting I Don’t Know How To Love Him and Caiaphas’ This Jesus Must Die .
It’s a show that effortlessly blends raunchy hard rock with acoustic solos and melodic ballads, delivered by a slightly hippyish, youthful, holy chorus.
And then there’s Herod’s Song, a high camp syncopated show-stopper which gives audiences a few minutes of comedy before the harrowing crucifixion scene.
OAT’s production, directed by Timothy Sheader, really packs a punch, from its industrial chic stage to Tom Scutt’s overall stripped back design, Drew McOnie’s vibrant and energetic retro choreography, and use of smoke and lighting to add to the rock concert effect.
There have been a variety of actors and musicians over the years taking the title role – from Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, to Glenn Carter, Steve Balsamo, Paul Nicholas, Ted Neeley (unforgettable, and a personal favourite,) in the film version and even Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley on radio.
At Regent’s Park it’s the turn of EastEnders’ Charlie Cotton, bearded Declan Bennett, complete with a seriously severe haircut, baseball cap, tats and sweats, and, lord, is he good. The audience could barely contain themselves after his emotionally charged version of Gethsemane.
The cast arrive from the stalls, as though turning up late for a gig. They have a group hug on stage and Bennett sits to one side, fiddling with his guitar, starting a roll-up and watching as his nemesis, Tyrone Huntley’s Judas, stakes his place in infamy.
The sung-through Superstar is told mainly from the viewpoint of Judas Escariot and there are flashes of inspiration from Sheader when the traitor collects his reward for betraying JC. The whipping scene and the Last Supper are also fantastically well imagined.
Cavin Cornwall, the go-to Caiaphas who has performed the role in several productions, has the most astonishing basso-profundo voice and intimidating appearance. He makes a big impact in this spectacular production. Every step, literally, of his chilling performance, is superbly choreographed.
There is also stand-out support from David Thaxton as Pilate and Anoushka Lucas as Mary. Peter Caulfield’s cameo as Herod is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Bennett’s bloody and shocking appearance, post-torture, is a credit to the make-up team, and quite disturbing to see. His eventual crucifixion (on a bit of a gimmicky cross), is almost an anti-climax, especially tucked in one corner of the stage out of the sight line of some of the audience.
But, overall, this is a magnificent and atmospheric production, performed by a top ensemble of talented singers, musicians and dancers.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until August 27.
Jesus Christ Superstar
What’s the buzz? Declan Bennett wins disciples as the eponymous JC in a revival of Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.