Monday, March 12, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar - Canberra Philo

Review by John Lombard

Director Jim McMullen reinterprets "Jesus Christ Superstar" by shunting ancient Jerusalem into a Mad Max-style future, with the Pharisees custodians of a gated compound that separates the rabble from the elect.

Jesus' disciplines are a rough and rowdy crowd, encouraged by a surprisingly relaxed Jesus to trade violence for awkward bud hugs.

Grant Pegg's Jesus is a genial killjoy, serene but lacking messianic intensity. Rather than following an inscrutable destiny, he seems to be riding a wave he can't control. Pegg sings the part well and gives us the man, not the myth.

Will Huang is very strong as a sullen and unpredictable Judas. The musical is designed to show us Judas' point of view, but in no way is he the hero: the music openly mocks "poor old Judas".  But with Jesus cast as a friendly wellness coach, Judas was the one who showed the conviction of a true messiah.  I wondered why the charismatic Judas didn't just walk off with some of Jesus' disciples and start his own religion.

This was a production with a lot of sympathy for Jesus' executioners. Ian Croker was moving as Pilate, although his voice was erratic on opening night.

Paul Sweeney as Herod had the best and worst scene in the production: his Herod was supremely likeable, glitzy, fabulous, and surrounded by cavorting dancers having the time of their lives. The audience loved it, and Jesus felt irrelevant next to the spectacle of Herod doing the can can.

Herod should be the symbol of everything Jesus is fighting, but here he felt like a role model for inclusion and body positivity, and much like Judas asked some very good questions.  

The direction was often at odds with the musical's puritanism: Jesus emptying the temple should be an act of purification, but here he was just a reactionary bully picking on enthusiastic sex workers. The glee and joy of the physically confident ensemble made Jesus' chaste flirtation with Mary Magdalene look twee.

The choreography was imaginative, with the bloody handprints used in the 39 lashes a particular highlight. The set was also very successful, with the chain link fence creating a perfect sense of place.

Opening night had a lot of sound tech problems: mikes cut in an out, and the vocal level felt off.

Jesus Christ Superstar started as a concept album, and it has often been performed as a concert rather than a fully realised stage production. Philo's production injects much needed theatricality, in an experiment to see whether a slightly tired musical can be jolted back to life. Many of the ideas are arresting, but in this production Jesus' story is a subplot in the Passion of Judas.