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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Jesus Christ Superstar
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 table.

Most of the action takes place in half-light or less, a general darkness offering little to the eye.

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 well-intentioned personalities.

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 shriek).

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Jesus Christ Superstar - Barbican Theatre 2019