views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Jesus Christ Superstar
O2 Arena
22nd September 2012

★★★★☆

In taking Jesus Christ Superstar out of the theatre and into arenas, Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest moneyspinner off the back of another tedious talent show could have been an utter disaster.

But director Laurence Connor does a largely great job of realising the constraints of playing to upwards of 15,000 people and adjusts the show accordingly. It also serves to remind us that, behind the cynical TV and theatre cash cows of Nancy, Dorothy and now Superstar, Lord Webber and the less culpable Tim Rice are actually exceedingly talented people.

Moving the action to the present day, this Jesus is the Obama-lite leader of an Occupy style movement called The Twelve. All of the plot points are present and correct, albeit explored wholly through song, with almost all of of the dialogue wisely jettisoned. Everyone knows the motivations of Mary, Judas and Jesus and where the show embellishes these relationships, it's clear through Rice's sharp lyrics how everyone feels. It's been rightly repositioned as a purely musical experience and the dialogue certainly isn't missed. Who wants to sit 100 yards away straining to see ants emote when they could just have great time through the blistering tunes?

Ben Forster, winner of Superstar, makes for a moody and petulant Jesus. There's no doubting that Judas (Tim Minchin) has always been the more relatable of the two, doubting Jesus' divinity and behaviour, feeling as betrayed by the Son of God as Jesus does by Judas. But here Jesus isn't very likeable at all. Forster's great, with a strong voice especially in the lower range, but a few of the updated ideas don't sit well with who Jesus is meant to be. Chasing the money lenders from the Temple was a heroic and worthy act in the Bible. Here, chasing some strippers out of the Temple pole dancing club just makes Jesus seem a petty authoritarian or schoolboy throwing a tantrum.

But, as I said, the main man is Judas and Minchin, easily the best rock voice here, gives him the gravitas and magnetism he deserves. It's no secret Minchin loves this musical and the character of Judas most of all, and it shows. Every snarky delivery, every frustration, is fully justified. His suicide hits us harder than Jesus' crucifixion and he carries the whole show effortlessly.

And as for the other stunt casting? Mel C is faultless as Mary Magdalene, and Chris Moyles does a decent job of Herod, here a chat show host. His ego and self-worship is perfectly suited to the role of subjecting Jesus to a literal trial by media. Half of me thoroughly enjoyed that scene, the other half of me cringed, thinking that it was far too on-the-nose. But if you're happy to go along with the campy fun, it shouldn't worry you too much.

As it was just tune after tune, the songs are important. There's nothing more you can say about Gethsemane, or the heavy Metal opener of Haven on Their Minds or even the ragtime and cabaret stylings of Herod's song. It's a classic for a reason, and the soundtrack set-up just goes to show the strength of each tune.

With its huge screen, urban and post-industrial setting of young bohemians, it's very reminiscent of We Will Rock You. But where that takes a series of excellent songs and totally destroys all pleasure, this is a hedonistic and hugely enjoyable rejigging of the classic musical which might possibly irk the purists. Still, wasn't that what Jesus was all about?

Jesus Christ Superstar opened at the O2 Arena on 21st September 2012 and toured around the UK until 21st October 2012, including a return date in London on 17th October 2012, that time at the Wembley Arena.

Nearest tube station: North Greenwich for the O2 (Jubilee)



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