Every once in a while, you see a show that grabs you from the get go, makes your heart race, and shows you just how good theatre can be. CLOC’s Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those shows. Even before the audience entered the auditorium of the National Theatre, a unnerving and rumbling soundscape set the tone for an edgy performance of a show which has been a standard of the music theatre canon since its premiere on Broadway in 1971.
Director Shaun Kingma is to be congratulated on his innovative vision for this production of Superstar. His director’s note mentions two key points. Firstly, that in CLOC’s version, Jesus is one Man, and the setting of the show ‘at a time when the world may just need this Man again’. To that end, the date and locale of the show were left to the audience to place. Some may draw the conclusion of a current day Syria, others may feel it was in a futuristic dystopian era akin to the film Mad Max.
Secondly, Kingma wanted to explore the “what if” relationships between Jesus, Mary, and Judas. With Mary made a member of The Twelve, it gave us a fresh interpretation of how things might have played out. Kingma’s execution was these two central conceits was clean and confident. He has clearly spent a great deal of time with his entire cast, principals and ensemble alike, on character development and the interplay within The Twelve.
Kingma followed through on his vision of the show with an ingenious set design. Exposed metal beams and angled girders, a central two-piece revolving barricade/platform, grates in the floor, trucks with beams and ladders – these combined to create different spaces within a timeless world. While Judas’ hanging certainly presents a major OH&S safety concern for any company and designer, a more subtle way of getting the actor to connect to the safety harness would have not have distracted from the drama of the moment as much (having the noose rope and harness cable as one, perhaps). Complementing the set was Brad Alcock’s stunning lighting design. So good was the lighting that it almost served as a character in its own right. Alcock created a dark atmosphere, while keeping the actors lit well at all times. The ‘alternate focus’ lighting (for example, the feint spot on Annas during the thirty-nine lashes) was subtle and effective.
Adding to the look of the show were the excellent costumes, designed by Victoria Horne. The wardrobe echoed pieces from Game of Thrones (Pilate and his cohorts), Star Wars (Caiaphas and the priests), and modern day street wear (The Twelve and the ensemble). There was a sense about some characters of not being wholly human, adding to the feeling of a possibly futuristic setting. The different styles combined for an overall look which delineated groups and ranks. Completing the wardrobe look was the make-up design from David Wisken – particularly noteworthy was the make-up for the priests and for Herod.
The orchestra was ably led by Tyson Legg. In a show built on rock music, it is testament to Legg and the sound team that the balance between the cast and orchestra was perfect throughout. The musical and vocal arrangements used in this production were not like any other from previous Superstar productions – the vocals in ‘The Temple’ beginning with lone voice (very well acted and sung by Marco Fusco), the reprise of ‘Trials and Tribulations’ being voiced solely by Peter (Jye Cannon), extended instrumental breaks to heighten tension – all of these moments made this Superstar unique. The orchestra did not falter for one moment, and a shout out to the strings section for their gorgeous work in ‘Gethsemane’. Sound design by Marcello Lo Ricco was with the audience from the moment they entered the theatre. Once or twice, there was a crackling in a body mic, as well as one or two solo lines that were not picked up – in an otherwise flawless sound plot, these moments stood out.
Choreography by Tamara Finch was simple, but grungy in the ensemble numbers of Act One. The precision moves Finch created for the ‘Superstar’ dancers were slick and showy, adding to the heightened state of the title song.
Daniel Mottau gave us a very understated Jesus, a Man who did not want to be a leader or a hero. Mottau’s singing showed great dramatic range and strong vocal control. His performance of ‘Gethsemane’ all but stopped the show – it was wonderful to hear the high note in the middle of the song not screamed in the all too overdone falsetto, but sung with strength, and laden with emotion.
Mottau was well matched by his Judas, Scott MacKenzie. A powerful presence on stage, MacKenzie held nothing back. He sang in a true rock style and gave Judas’ songs the required vocal grate which gives the character credibility. He introduced this rock growl early on in ‘Heaven on ‘Their Minds’ and used it alongside of a robust, clean sound – these two timbres combined allowed MacKenzie to give Judas every emotional colour imaginable. Broody, angry, passionate and sad – this is a performance of Judas to be long remembered.
The power three was rounded out by a thrilling performance of Mary Magdalene from Katie Weston. Unlike many biblical interpretations of this character, Weston brought grit, strength, and desire to the role. Vocally, she was outstanding – her performance of ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ was unlike any rendition previously heard. Weston’s phrasing, emotion, and vocal choices were all truly her own – so refreshing to listen to, and so moving. Her relationships with Jesus and Judas showed both loyalty and conflict. Hers is a Mary who knows her own mind, and will not make apologies for the way she feels.
Henry Shaw as Caiaphas showed tremendous vocal command of the role – from the expected lowest of low notes in ‘This Jesus Must Die’, to the rewritten higher lines in the same song, Shaw’s performance was brilliant. His menacing presence added great authority to each scene he was in. Shaw will certainly be someone to watch in the coming years.
Annas is a difficult role to sing, and was handled with aplomb by Scott Hili. During the thirty-nine lashes, Hili’s face was a picture of sadistic revelry, making him marvellously creepy to watch.
Pilate – a man stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time – was portrayed by Ian Andrew. His rendition of ‘Pilate’s Dream’ was thoughtful and vocally sound. During ‘Trial By Pilate’, Andrew brought Pilate’s frustration and anger to a palpable rage, as the character realised he had to bow to the demands of a rabid crowd. In a short but memorable performance, Adrian Carr’s King Herod was a far cry from the camp, vaudeville-esque portrayals to which the theatregoing audience have become accustomed. In keeping with the dark and futuristic vision, Carr’s Herod was a king to be feared. Threatening Jesus with his sword of a hand, and hobbling around on a C-3PO-like metal leg, this Herod was a man who would do his own dirty work, and not call in the lackeys to do the job. No more is ‘King Herod’s Song’ a jaunt with honkey-tonk piano and girls in sexy, cocktail frocks – in this production, it was hard rock with grunge vocals, and full of malevolence in Carr’s hands.
As Simon, Frank Kerr was cheeky and brash. Both he and the audience thoroughly enjoyed the way he wound up Annas just before ‘Simon Zealotes’. In this call-to-arms number, Kerr sang with confidence, although the sound was a touch constricted at time. Jye Cannon’s Peter was vulnerable and charming. His duet with Mary, ‘Could We Start Again Please?’ was delivered with great sincerity, and his falsetto at the end was beautiful.
The ensemble did a marvellous job. Each cast member had a clear purpose for each scene in which they appeared, and it was clear that great thought had gone into their performances. Superstar is not an easy sing for the company, and the tight, sometimes off-key harmonies were very well handled by the cast – a testament to the singers and to Legg.
CLOC have a triumph on their hands. Clear your schedule, book the babysitter, and get down to the National Theatre in St Kilda for a night at the theatre that is thought-provoking and exhilarating.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays until October 22nd.
Tickets are available through www.cloc.org.au, or call the CLOC Ticket Line on 1300 362 547.