Jesus Christ Superstar was performed at the National Indoor Arena, Birmingham as part of a tour which continues until 15 October.
There are those, I among them, who opined that Godspell was a more sophisticated 1970s musical about Jesus than Jesus Christ Superstar.
So what a pleasure to encounter the much-heralded tour of Tim Rice and Lloyd Webber’s early masterpiece and find that, perhaps, I was wrong.
I’ve always rooted for Lloyd Webber, if only because he was born the same year as me and I once had dinner with his father. Often he turns up trumps: Evita, The Phantom of the Opera and Cats all hit the nail on the head, and one looks forward to Stephen Ward this autumn.
While Joseph and its harmonies always struck me as a kids’ (grown up kids’?) crowd-pleaser, Jesus Christ Superstar displays a sophistication way beyond it. Everything about Laurence Connor’s present staging proves that.
The music is subtle, vibrantly varied, imaginitively syncopated, and in this scoring at times beautifully instrumented. Only two guitars, with a wonderful range of poignancy expressed – especially when subtly converted into folk, almost classical instruments – vastly enhance key dramatic moments. Flute and clarinet in the textures (the versatile Kate Robertson) and horn too (Tim Ball) work emotional wonders.
This is the first time I’ve heard a musical in a big arena where the speakers are in exactly the right place. True heroes are two hand-held camera operators (Roger Nelson, Bryan Miles) who, with Gabriella Linford’s third, project such marvels on the video screen one might have been watching an electrifying production of Wagner’s Ring.
Modern costumes suit Alexander Hanson’s gloriously sung, nonchalantly jogging Roman Governor (‘Pilate’s Dream’), Cavin Cornwall’s lordly bass Caiaphas and, best of all, Gerard Bentall’s scuttling amanuensis Annas, all gobsmacking performances. Rory Taylor’s poignant intervention as Simon Zealotes, another tenor, is a high point. Chris Moyles’ parody-vignette as gameshow host ‘King’ Herod is a showstopping comic hoot.
Melanie C is pretty fabulous in the not-quite mapped out role of Mary Magdalene, delivering two fine, slightly corny numbers. Director Connor’s superbly focused ensemble (‘Everything’s Alright’ is a classic) not only sing like angels, every little visual touch – often a counterpoint of lateral onstage moves and in-your-face action onscreen – is devised with the sensitivity of a National Theatre staging.
I did feel for those – often children – in seats near the back though who experience the show from such a distance, despite having parted with a lot of money. Could screens be placed near the rear, not to replace the stage action, but to re-enforce it?
But Jesus Christ Superstar’s stars are real stars. Ben Forster holds us transfixed as Christ, exquisite in high tenor register, and breaking into not so much falsetto as a terrifying high yelp as the Crucifixion sequence unfolds. Tim Minchin, who fulfils a lifelong ambition by singing Judas, has it all. He looks like a ripe-package, down-on-your-luck pop star-cum-Bill Bailey: perfect. He sings fabulously. Every moment aches, which makes him the greatest Judas Iscariot since Elgar’s. No wonder we are riveted.