Five star Superstar

Nipped along to the new Hydro in Glasgow to see the arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. It's a great building, very nice, enormous but feels like you'd get a good view from anywhere. Mind we were in the expensive seats for once (thanks Orange Fun Finder for the deal!)

I have always liked Jesus Christ Superstar a lot. I wouldn’t say it is really a cool musical to love (if there is such a thing) but I’ve thought the songs were catchy and sat well together, and the lyrics were witty and intelligent. But it is a tough one to perform – very technically challenging – and consequently productions of Jesus Christ Superstar can be terrible, or perhaps worse, baffling. I’ve seen a few attempts of varying quality.

A lot of people appear to assume that if you like a musical you will automatically love any production of it, but I tend to be less forgiving and have high expectations for the ones that I like. My expectations are rarely met.

I must have seen a hundred professional productions of musicals in my time – West End, Broadway and touring productions. People often ask me which was my favourite and I find it hard to say. Few are perfect, many have excellent elements and are let down on others. I usually say the 2003 West End revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie was the best.

Well now the Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour is the best. This production was absolutely exceptional and it exceeded my expectations in every respect. It is a tremendous example of how you should perform in a musical, how you should stage a musical, and how you should revive a musical for a contemporary audience. And crucially the vocal performances were super-strong all round.

This musical was first performed in 1971 and it would be so easy for it to look old fashioned. But they’ve done something amazing with this one. I have never seen such a contemporary staging of anything. It just felt so *now*, as if it were written last week.

Firstly it looked great. It was all set up to make one think of the recent anti-poverty movements and protests with dreadlocks and tents and gritty urban imagery. The set was quite simple, but was supplemented with projections of images, text, and live video footage. It was very creative and the timings and framing were impeccable. This was often done very cleverly to increase or decrease perceptions of the size of the stage, to make it appear that there were more people on stage, and for tongue in cheek embellishments. Stuff came down from above. People flew. And there was fire.

But it was the cast in combination with the music and lyrics that really made it.

The chorus were spot on, tight and accurate and there were excellent supporting performances from darkly suited-and-booted Ciaiphas and Pilate.

The part of Herod was clearly written for a cameo to bring a bit of razzmatazz, and Chris Moyles has a decent go. Perhaps in other productions I’d have been raving about him, but despite being absolutely good enough he was thoroughly out-charismaed by the three leads.

TAFKA Sporty Spice, Melanie C, plays a defiant Mary Magdalene with a strangely sordid sensuality as befitting a contemporary protester-cum-prostitute. Her solo pieces were quite touching and she really captured the essence of a woman who was acting completely out of character because she felt compelled to love a ‘different’ man, and was totally thrown off-balance by the whole idea.

Jesus was played by Ben Forster, winner of ITV’s Superstar. He gave a very credible performance throughout, and again in any normal production he would have stood out. To start with I thought he was a little weak in the way of his Jesus-ness. Yes, a bit cocky, a bit smug, but he wasn’t quite dominating the stage and I wasn’t sure I’d have followed him. But after the Last Supper, symbolically alone with his thoughts, Ben Forster kicked the arse out of the song Gethsemene by taking us through the five stages of grief in just one song as Jesus accepted his fate. A decisive but eerie delivery of the conclusion of this thought process – “take me now before I change my mind” – was for me the highlight of the whole production. Following this, the stoic acceptance of what was yet to come and then what eventually came was masterful. Having decided, he stood there and took it. It was brave, and it was terrifying.

However, Tim Minchin as Judas acted everyone else off the stage. He simply owned it. From the first song he set Judas out as being a man in turmoil, who simply didn’t know what to do for the best. He took us from confused desperation (“I remember when this whole thing began. No talk of God then, we called you a man. And believe me, my admiration for you hasn't died. But every word you say today gets twisted round some other way. I am frightened by the crowd for we are getting much too loud”) to chaotic despair (“I have no thought at all about my own reward. I really didn't come here of my own accord. Just don't say I'm damned for all time”), to desolation (“God I'll never ever know why you chose me for your crime”), and out the other side to a taunting and malevolent hallucination of a narrator (“Every time I look at you I don't understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand. You'd have managed better if you'd had it planned”). He was physical, he was emotional, and his vocals were exceptional. He made me believe that if I was in his position I would have done the same thing, and he made me believe that Judas should be the seminal role that every musical theatre actor should aspire to play.

I’ve read the source book, I’ve had a culturally Christian upbringing, and I’ve seen this show several times and listened to the CD even more. I know what it is about. But the depth of the performances in this production made me see new things the story – or perhaps more accurately in the songs and in this interpretation. Certainly I felt it more deeply.

The relationship between Jesus and Judas. Complicated. Love/hate. Uncertainty around whether roles were pre-defined by God or Fate or whether free will led them to this unpleasant conclusion.

The scale of the betrayal. By Judas, by Peter, by the fair-weather friends who were happy to take from Jesus when the times were good and dump him when the going got hard.

The juxtapositions. The major “Hey JC, JC you're alright by me” to the minor “Hey JC, JC won't you die for me?”. The silliness of King Herod amongst the precariousness and severity of Jesus’s position. The rumination around who could, or would, or should be remembered for what transpired. Both for Jesus: “I must be mad thinking I'll be remembered”, and yet of Judas: “What you have done will be the saving of everyone. You'll be remembered forever for this.”

When Jesus died (spoiler!) and the solar eclipse settled over the cross, a light swept across the audience signifying both the exquisiteness of Jesus’s sacrifice and the complicity of everyone who stood by and let it happen. It was for us, but it was by us.

Overall, the production was laden with doom from end to end, with a feeling that fate and destiny were out of control and rolling towards something horrific. It was uncomfortable viewing, it was touching and complicated and awful and wonderful. I was often open mouthed, equally in awe of the performances and stunned by the plot. If it hadn’t felt so contemporary it wouldn’t have been so shocking.

I loved it, and if someone had given me the option I would have walked straight back in and watched it again.

The cost of tickets for this show is steep and we were lucky enough to get a two-for-one deal on top price tickets (usually £72). But this was well worth the full price, and more.

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