Jesus Christ Superstar has been performed around the world for almost five decades. Beginning life as a rock opera concept album, it’s spawned two film interpretations and remains one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s biggest success stories.
The last major production to appear on Sydney stages was the UK arena tour starring Tim Minchin, which landed here in 2013. Last week, Packemin Productions, which has already presented a number of Lloyd Webber’s most popular works, opened its production of Jesus Christ Superstar at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres.
Directed by Neil Gooding, Packemin’s Jesus Christ Superstar is a faithful staging of Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s contemporised depiction of the final days of the life of Jesus Christ (Joe Kalou). It begins with disciple Judas Iscariot (Toby Francis) sharing his grave concerns for the fate of Jesus and the occupied land should Jesus’ profile continue to rise. His followers are rejecting the rule of the Romans, who are determined to crush any opposition. Inevitably, Jesus comes to the attention of high priest Caiaphas (Haji Myrteza), who conspires with the Pharisees to nip the phenomenon in the bud.
Set to Lloyd Webber’s and Rice’s pop-rock score, Jesus Christ Superstar is a compelling and thought-provoking two hours of musical theatre that examines Jesus – the man and his relationship with his apostles, and the fledgling movement that inspired the world religion. Clocking in at just over two hours, the score is packed with memorable cuts, some of which even transcended the boundaries of musical theatre and made their way into pop culture.
Packemin’s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar reminds us why the show has enjoyed such a long life. The story is told by a committed cast, featuring one of the company’s strongest ensembles to date, and its dynamic score is powerfully reproduced by musical director Peter Hayward and his orchestra. Coupled with David Grigg’s loud and clear sound design, it provides a concert-like experience for the audience. Neil Shotter’s set consists principally of a large scaffold tower that fills the back and the sides of the stage and proves a fitting structure on and around which events can unfold. The production’s visual impact is further enhanced by Sean Clarke’s excellent lighting choices, including a thoughtful use of coloured and moving lights.
Gooding’s direction ensures the appropriate pace is maintained, that scene transitions are seamless and that, despite the large cast and sizeable set, the stage never looks cluttered. Cameron Mitchell’s choreography is largely simple, but it’s always in keeping with the drama and there are some impressive sequences (‘The Temple’ stands out for its portrayal of Jesus becoming overwhelmed by his followers’ devotion).
And as far as the cast is concerned, this is a strong group. Toby Francis is a strong and committed Judas, lending his beautiful tenor to some of the musical’s most difficult tracks. He paints a vivid picture of a man torn between his loyalty to Jesus and his overwhelming fear of what lies ahead if Jesus draws unwanted attention to himself and the group. Brittanie Shipway is a standout as Mary Magdalene, bringing warmth to a character with whom Jesus is portrayed as having a complex relationship. Her fine mezzo-soprano makes ‘I don’t know how to love him’ one of the production’s great moments.
Myrteza quickly proves he has the bass vocals required for Caiaphas, while Gavin Brightwell is fittingly ostentatious as Pilate and delivers another strong vocal performance. In fact, there are good voices to be heard across this ensemble.
Playing the title role, Kalou has no trouble depicting Jesus as an innately amiable and freethinking leader, and looks the quintessential Jesus. On opening night, his voice handled some moments in the score with more confidence than others. That said, it’s a committed and honest portrayal, and a stronger vocal performance will likely be the natural result of a few more runs.
Overall, Jesus Christ Superstar is easily one of Packemin’s best productions to date. This is a well-crafted, well-performed and highly engaging version of the timeless rock musical.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR – SEASON DETAILS
Presented by: Packemin Productions
Venue: Riverside Theatres (Corner Market &, Church St, Parramatta)
Dates: Playing now until Saturday 23 February, 2019