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Review: Jesus Christ Superstar at Liverpool Empire ****

Back in 1970 a bright young British music and lyrics team created a rock opera studio album based on the last week in the life of Christ – as seen through the eyes of disciple Judas Iscariot.

They recorded the sung through tale (with Deep Purple’s Ian Gilliam as the titular son of God and Murray Head as the great betrayer) because no one was interested in the story as a stage musical.

While times have changed in the intervening half-a-century, Jesus Christ Superstar’s rock opera genesis remains as a cast iron framework – literally and musically in this touring production of Regent Park Open Air Theatre’s Olivier Award-winning almost gig theatre retelling which has a particularly strong aesthetic.

A live band is stationed on the upper storey of designer Tom Scutt’s industrial ironwork set (looking straight out of 1980s video – Wild Boys maybe) which also features a deeply raked crucifix catwalk, with Lee Curran’s rock concert lighting design piercing less a deep Purple and more a stygian gloom.

As does the lone guitarist who opens proceedings, his instrument yowling from the heights like Brian May on top of Buckingham Palace as a hoodie-clad throng streams through the stalls to deliver a pulsating question - “what’s the buzz?”.

Above: Shemi Omari James as Judas. Top: Jesus Christ Superstar

The ensemble, a Judean Greek chorus in muted tonal fatigues, shapeshifts in relentless waves of choreography from Drew Mconie and which has hints of the 1973 film version of the musical, morphing seamlessly from Hosana-ing, almost cultish cheerleaders to crowds sweating fealty to Caesar and baying for Jesus’s (Ian McIntosh) crucifixion.

Jesus, Judas (Shemi Omari James) and Mary Magdalene (Hannah Richardson) form the relative calm at the eye of this swirling mass of music and movement - an eye in which Judas and Mary are engaged in their fruitless tug of love over the man they both want to believe in.

Richardson’s vocals are sinuously sweet, and similarly James offers mellow, soulful sorrow as the doubting Judas, although he can certainly bring rock falsetto to the part when needed, even if at times the lyrics become frustratingly indistinct in the process.

McIntosh meanwhile delivers Christ’s message with clarity and simplicity, and in Gethsemane – one of the highlights of the evening – he weaves a compelling narrative arc which carries his proselytising Jesus from raw anguish to acceptance of his fate.

Above: Hannah Richardson (Mary) and Ian McIntosh (Jesus)

Director Timothy Sheader has a keen eye for visual impact, perhaps nowhere more so than the Last Supper, the crucifix runway becoming a long table at which the disciples create a striking Leonardo tableau.

Julian Clary is also visually striking – but disappointingly muted - in a brief, Cabaret-style appearance as an ostentatiously gold-clad Herod. He’s also evidently a disciple of Rex Harrison, goading Jesus to ‘turn my water into wine’ in the late Liverpudlian actor’s distinct speak-singing style.

The same can’t be said about the high priests, with Annas (Matt Bateman) and particularly Caiaphas (Jad Habchi whose rumbling bass notes surely come from beneath the Earth’s mantle) a real presence whenever they are on stage, while Ryan O’Donnell brings a tangible sense of conflict to his goth-like Pilate.


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