One of Melbourne’s all time favourite musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar is back on stage for a short, but quite spectacular, season.
Andrew Lloyd Webber has been quoted as saying that Jesus Christ Superstar is meant to be presented outside the confines of a proscenium arch theatre, and this large-scale production successfully captures a rock stadium vibe. Industrial scaffolding rises to three stories overhead, dazzling lighting effects abound, and the well-loved music is played and sung with energy to spare.
While the production standards and much of the work by the cast will be sure to please crowds of theatregoers, there is a significant missed opportunity in the absence of an engaging and logical concept for the production.
The litmus test for opera revivals is whether the director’s concept enhances the storytelling. By setting the show in contemporary times, director Gale Edwards loses the original meaning of the text but gains nothing in its place. The brilliant concept of the original show, brought out in Tim Rice’s lyrics, is to have the audience imagine what would happen if Jesus arrived in current time. Setting the show in current time removes the question but does not answer it. Cell phones and social media are nowhere to be seen. A lone television camera is brought on for the crucifixion, but the footage it takes is not shown.
The characters exist in a vacuum, with nothing at stake. Despite the towering scaffolding set, almost all of the performances are staged downstage centre, with performers singing straight out at the audience. Dressed like they are performing Godspell, Jesus and his Disciples seem free and easy. There are High Priests, inexplicably dressed like acolytes of Satan, but the impact of Jesus’ supposed threat towards their power is nonexistent.
While the work improves significantly in act two, much of act one is wasted. As Judas sings his opening interior monologue “Heaven On Their Minds,” Jesus and Disciples stand watching and listening to him but not reacting to his deadly warning. In “Strange Thing Mystifying,” Judas openly insinuates that Mary is a whore, but she shows no reaction. Worse, when Judas, dressed in wifebeater red singlet, pushes Mary to the ground, no one reacts.
During “Poor Jerusalem,” the Disciples distribute military machine guns, but it is not remotely clear who they are going to shoot. Later, when the stormtroopers soldiers arrest Jesus, the guns are nowhere to be seen.
The action gathers significant momentum and impact in the second half of act two. The tender beauty of “Could We Start Again Please?” is chillingly offset by having Jesus beaten by guards while Mary, Simon and Peter, impervious to Jesus’ current suffering, sing lyrics that now have even greater meaning. The most innovative sequence of the night comes in “The 39 Lashes.” Instead of one soldier whipping Jesus, members of the crowd takes turns to run forward and scratch Jesus, leaving bloody imprints smeared across his body. With the crown of thorns upon his head, the image of Jesus upon the wooden cross is a harrowing one indeed.
The impact of the final scenes is heightened by a tremendously committed performance from Rob Mills. An innately likeable performer, Mills is a natural as the idolized figure, but really impresses in the powerful torture and death scenes. Mills may not hit every high note in the score, but sings with requisite power, particularly in showstopping aria “Gethsemane,” which received the most enthusiastic applause on opening night.
A point of difference in presentations by The Production Company is their use of a lavishly sized orchestra. Working with only 11 musicians, maestro Anthony Gabriele nonetheless achieves a thrilling rendition of Webber’s score, with a measure of success coming when the audience stayed to listen to, and applaud, the playout.
Vocally, the musical direction is largely focused on power, with little focus on nuance of expression. An exception to this is the reliably superb singing from Michael Cormick as Pilate, who conveys a fearful and fearsome character in his elegant vocals. Trevor Ashley also impresses with the clarity and focus of his vocals in “King Herod’s Song.”
In his first appearance with The Production Company, and playing his first major role to date, Zoy Frangos makes a highly auspicious debut as Judas. Beginning the show on stage alone in front of 2,500 people brought out a slight touch of nerves, but Frangos soon moved past this to immerse himself in the role of the troubled traitor. Although Edwards’ placement of Judas as an immediate aggressive outsider removes some of his arc as a friend of Jesus, Frangos still shows the undercurrent of fear and doubt that threaten to overpower Judas at any moment. Already dressed in red, Judas’ appearance in red for the “Superstar” finale is diminished, but the overall combination of costumes (Kim Bishop) and choreography (Kelley Abbey) makes for a suitably spectacular finale.
Blessed with some of the best-loved songs in the score, Alinta Chidzey sings beautifully as Mary. Lesser-known act two song “Could We Start Again Please?” is also a standout in Chidzey’s capable hands. While Chidzey is somewhat let down by lack of direction for her character, she maintains an appealing stage presence and her lovely vocals are a pleasant contrast to the proliferation of male voices.
Paul Hughes has the requisite rumbling bass for Head Priest Caiaphas. With a very confidently placed high tenor, Stephen McDowell neatly complements Caiaphas as arch Priest Annas.
Featured ensemble member Andrew Cook stands out with powerhouse vocals as Peter. Mike Snell also adds strength as war-loving Disciple Simon.
With many extra performances added, this season of Jesus Christ Superstar is sure to be a popular success.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 13 August 2017.
Photos: Jeff Busby