The Theatreguide.London Review
Barbican Theatre Summer 2019
It is fifty years since
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice announced their arrival with the first of
the modern mega-musicals.
This revival, first seen at
the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre last year, reminds us that much of what
seemed revolutionary in 1969 has become familiar and even conventional in
musicals since then.
What is likely to strike you
most now is less the songs than some staging effects and Tim Rice's quiet
historical revisionism in telling the story of Jesus.
Infamously, the original
Broadway production was directed by Tom O'Horgan, that briefly trendy (He
also did Hair) master of too-much-ness, swamping the show with
razzle-dazzle like performers rising out of the stage or descending from
the rafters or costumes that dwarfed their wearers.
Here director Timothy Shrader
and designer Tom Scutt opt for almost-too-little-ness. A mainly bare stage
has only one prominent element, a large cross lying on the ground to
double as runway, playing space and (in an easy sight gag) the Last Supper
Most of the action takes
place in half-light or less, a general darkness offering little to the
In a partial salute to the
open theatricality of fifty years ago, all the singers openly carry hand
microphones, and a radio-studio-style mic stand is permanently centre
stage, so that solos like I Don't Know How To Love Him are delivered in
concert or night club style.
Except for occasional frantic
rushing about by Judas, almost the only physical action lies in the
several attractively muscular dances created by choreographer Drew McOnie
for the chorus.
While there is little that is
new or unique in Tim Rice's imagining of the central characters, it is
notable that he has chosen in every case to find human, imperfect and
Jesus is frequently uncertain
about his calling, sometimes sharing Judas's fear that things have gotten
out of hand, his original modest message becoming lost.
Judas himself wavers between
annoyance at Jesus for losing control of his followers and his image, and
convincing himself that Jesus wants and perhaps needs to be martyred, so
that he is helping rather than betraying.
Mary Magdalene is, as her
signature song implies, a simple woman out of her depth with real emotion.
And far from being the villain of the piece, Pilate is shown to be
sympathetic to Jesus and aware that he poses not threat to Roman rule, but
driven to give up trying to save him by a mob whipped up to a blood lust
that needs to crucify someone, anyone.
Robert Tripolino plays Jesus
as a man never fully in control of the situation, singing with more
passion and intelligence than melodic smoothness (i.e., he tends to
Ricardo Afonso is the
strongest singing actor of the group, sympathetically bringing us into
Judas's emotional confusion. Sallay Garnett is a little shrill in
Everything's Alright but does full justice to I Don't Know How, and Matt
Cardle effectively brings out the surprisingly softer side of Pilate.
I can imagine younger audience members wondering what all the fuss was fifty years ago over what seems now a quite pleasant, mildly thought-provoking and thoroughly ordinary musical with a couple of good songs.
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