Perth Arena, May 31
JESUS Christ Superstar was the first big musical I saw as an adult so it’s always had a special place in my heart and memory. It was 1972, Sydney’s Capitol Theatre had been smothered in what was then an extremely cool colour, Mission Brown, and Jon English was very, very hot. Australia had got in early with Superstar. It opened on Broadway in October 1971 and in Sydney in May 1972, a few months before London. After their huge success in Sydney, Jim Sharman was tapped to direct the London production and Brian Thomson to design it. How good was that?
After failing to secure good seats for one of the Sydney performances of this latest incarnation of Superstar I hit upon a solution. I review musical theatre for The Australian. Why not offer to take myself to Perth to cover the show? Bingo.
Thus I found myself in Perth Arena, the city’s spanking new entertainment venue, along with 12,500 others, give or take. A bonus was the extra frisson due to the presence of local boy made very, very good, Tim Minchin, playing the old Jon English role of Judas. Also from the London cast was Melanie C, former Spice Girl and a formidable Mary Magdalene. Jon Stevens, a former Judas of note – he was in that record-breaking run of 84 arena performances in 1992 – got a huge reception on entering and proved to be brilliantly cast as Pontius Pilate. As he started singing a man behind me said approvingly: “Now there’s a real voice.”
In the UK radio presenter Chris Moyles appeared as Herod and apparently wasn’t any great shakes as a singer. But there’s an element of novelty in the role so it didn’t seem too bizarre to bring in popular game show host Andrew O’Keefe for the Australian tour. As it happens the man can hold a tune and killed it as the King. Who knew?
To top things off, even this concentration of celebrity wattage couldn’t dim the true star of the evening – Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1972 rock oratorio. Given an astute, persuasive setting that evokes Occupy London specifically and contemporary protest movements more generally, Jesus Chris Superstar is as exciting now as it was when breaking ground for musical theatre 40 years ago.
Having originated in London last year the production – directed by Laurence Connor with designs by Mark Fisher (set) and Patrick Woodroffe (lights) – is tight as a drum. The stage is dominated by a staircase with the 10 band members on tiers to left and right. A huge screen at the back projects slogans and images of protest and close-ups of the performers and cleverly seems as much a theatrical response to our media-saturated world as a necessity for those in the cheap seats.
Herod’s appeal to the crowd to decide whether Jesus is the real deal or not is wittily expressed as being put to an audience vote via text message; Judas’s death and Jesus’s crucifixion are powerfully staged, and the 39 lashes meted out to Jesus are depicted unsparingly. Only the Victoria’s Secret-style angels who appear near the end strike a slightly tacky note. Otherwise the production is exceptionally well judged and it’s tremendously well sung.
Minchin is the revelation and the linchpin. In superb voice, he kickstarts the show with an anguished Heaven on Their Minds and establishes Judas as a serious, conflicted man. So, where is Jesus in all this? Superstar gives Judas a chance to put his side of the story and the musical is weighted in his favour. Even so, Ben Forster’s Jesus is at a further disadvantage when put up against the all-conquering Minchin. Forster can sing, no doubt about it, but I wish I had found him more charismatic. He seemed self-pitying and a bit of a chancer rather than full of messianic zeal, although to be fair I must add that at this first performance in the Australian tour mine was clearly a minority opinion.
Some of Rice’s lyrics haven’t stood the test of time but others still really cut the mustard. “When we retire we can write the gospels …” croon the woozy apostles at the Last Supper. What a great line. Meanwhile, the stream of great songs pours forth – hard rock, soft rock, ballads, anthems, a touch of music hall. It’s an eclectic mix that miraculously hangs together, delivered by a great band at a sound level that sweeps the audience up but is at the same time considerate. Bravo to the engineers.
Postscript: Superstar is a nimble show. O’Keefe got in a quick and nifty Eddie McGuire gag at the Perth opening. Hosanna, Hey-sanna! I do hope today’s short attention spans and thirst for new scandals don’t result it its being dropped along the way.
Remaining performances are in Sydney, June 7-9; Brisbane, June 11-12 and 18; Melbourne, June 14-16.
This is an extended version of a review that appeared in The Australian on June 3.