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REVIEW - Jesus Christ Superstar is intense, evocative and an experience not to be missed!


On Tuesday, we were treated to yet another amazing theatre experience at The Lowry, Salford as we watched Jesus Christ Superstar.  Read what our reviewer Karen Ryder had to say about this incredible production...

All someone needs to do is say the title of this Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical, and most people will start humming the titular tune in their heads on loop, probably for days!  It has been going for a whopping 50 plus years and shows no signs of slowing down.  The first rock opera, it is a groundbreaking piece of musical theatre, and even started out by doing things a little differently with a concept album to drum up interest before the show had even been produced!  Songs even entered the charts – almost unheard of for musical theatre – and has gone on to break boundaries yet again by introducing musical theatre into arena tours!  In short, Jesus Christ Superstar is a phenomenon that you simply have to see.  And don’t worry about your religious beliefs either, because this show may tell the story of a religious figure, but it is done through the eyes of his best friend Judas, making the story focus heavily on what it must have felt like at the time to have your buddy believe he was the son of God, and how bizarre that must have sounded.  It focuses on the people involved and explores their stories and their reactions to Jesus and his claims.  So, we follow Jesus in the last week or two of his life as he makes some extraordinary statements and garners a huge following.

But Judas worries for his sanity and so, as the hysteria builds, we are plunged headfirst into the psychology of cults, followers, and with social media and celebrity perhaps ruling many modern lives in a similar way, it is enticing and gripping to watch the comparisons as to how we all simply want to believe and belong to something and how far that can take us.  The relationships between the characters massively tell the story, from Jesus to Mary Magdalene, Jesus to Judas, and King Herod to everyone who he feels threatened by.  This is by no means a simple retelling of the Gospel, but an intimate, whirlwind, and chaotic glimpse into the tale of how an ordinary man believed in something so strongly, he was able to make infinite more people believe too.  And there are some very real, very poignant moments in their too that sadly reflect the current state of affairs and how vile humans can be to each other for simply believing different things.

And so, the show begins with that infectious guitar lick that had me beaming in an instant and feeling the electricity being poured into the theatre.  Within seconds you fully understand why this show has won many accolades including an Olivier for best revival.  For this production has absolutely been brought bang up to date under Timothy Sheader’s direction, Tom Scutt’s design, and Tom Deering and Michael Riley’s musical direction.  You will feel like you are at a rock concert.  The adrenaline is palpable and the visuals and drive of the show, flashing lights, copious amounts of glitter, and performers switching to hand held microphones for maximum impact, will blow your mind.  It is most definitely a concert that tells a story rather than a story told through theatre, which alters the entire performance and dynamic to epic proportions.  The performers may sometimes be in the literal spotlight but are often lit artistically too, leaving them in silhouette or enveloped in hazy, atmospheric smoke. 

Jesus Christ Superstar
has always played by different rules, and so I applaud them are proudly sticking to their original routes and making this a rock concert first and foremost.  The set is very urban, with rusting steel girders, rigging, and scaffolding, providing a great aesthetic for the mood and dynamic of the show.  It is used beautifully by the cast as they make it their own, climbing, suspending, entwining, and owning every inch of it.  A huge fallen cross dominates the floor and is used as a stage throughout, superbly giving a platform to the different characters.  The lighting by Lee Curran will whisk you into a rock frenzy, pulse your emotional state to the heights, and leave you agog at the final climax of the show.  A single beam of light before the sun seemingly sets on the reunion of Jesus and Judas.  The choreography by Drew Mconie expertly blends rock concert with musical theatre, making it powerful, slick, energised to a new level, and athletic to say the least.  It is mesmerising and hypnotic.  Canons are used throughout which not only looks amazing in this highly talented ensemble, but it reinforces the idea of this crowd all following one another blindly.  The dancing is so frenzied, it is almost ritualistic in its portrayal, showing the obsession of the group to belong.  There are symbolic moments of baptism, and washing themselves clean throughout, and one dancer in particular was so frantically brilliant that it can only be equated to the dance equivalent of speaking in tongues.  During ‘Everything’s Alright’ the backing singers and dancers moved like sirens, or mermaids, beguiling their prey.  Every detail of the choreography was so thought out that it truly told the story in its own right.

As for the cast, I mean, jaw drop!  The vocal demands on this show are insane, as is the emotional investment.  I can only image how spent each and every one of them is at the end of a performance for they give it everything they have.  This score ranges from the highest falsetto to the deepest bass, with everything in between being belted out to raise the rafters.  The story is told through the eyes of Judas, played by Shem Omari James (Dreamgirls) and he brings every emotion available to the table.  He thrusts us into his story and he forces us to feel everything he feels.  It is quite unbelievable, and his guilt will rip through you.  Then, to finish you off, his vocals will rip through you too, from his powerful command to his gentle falsetto.  Ian McIntosh (Beautiful, We Will Rock You) is enthralling as Jesus, taking us on a highly emotive journey from a seemingly humble man to a troubled one who feels he no longer has autonomy of his own path.  He performs with intelligence, keeping us on our emotional toes as we are whisked into excitement by him one moment, feel his pain the next, and desperately try to understand the perceived stubbornness the next.  It is a raw, eclectic, and passionate performance, and don’t even get me started on Gethsemane!  I just don’t have the words.  This was a moment to feel, and it will remain in my treasured memories for ever.  There is a certain sweet spot in it where I felt like I was hit with a whomph of something celestial. 

Hannah Richardson
 as Mary Magdalene was enticingly sultry, seductive and sensational.  She didn’t shy away from her characters profession but also allowed us to see that this didn’t make her any less of a person with feelings, and as those two things crossed over for Mary, Richardson came alive with the tensions it caused.  Timo Tatzber makes quite the entrance as Herod, with a flamboyance befitting a diva reclaiming their stage, complete with a glitzy gold costume and extensive cape.  It is a deliciously diva-esque performance blending a dark and twisty combination of danger and sardonic humour.  It was a crowd pleasing moment for even though the intentions of Herod weren’t great, the deliverance through fabulous comedic skills provided a perfectly timed emotional respite.  It was pure showbiz heaven and executed to perfection.  Ryan O’Donnell as Pilate is utterly phenomenal.  The anguish as he changes in the wake of mob mentality is outstanding and I felt his desperation as the broken world around him closed in.  It was quite the transformation from his initial disgust, to fear as the stakes were raised around him.  It was uncomfortable, as it should be, and his performance was captivating.

Jad Habchi
is a vocal magician as Caiaphas!  How he maintained those gorgeous, deep notes with such power and volume is so impressive.  His performance was a stunning cathartic moment amidst all the heavy emotions, as he erupted into boy band moments with a jaw dropping vocal range. Stephen Lewis-Johnston as Annas sounded like a rock god and belted out unbelievable notes that just left you shaking your head in blissful disbelief, as did Luke Street as Simon.  And can I just say, I thought I was hallucinating at one point, having 42 Balloon withdrawals if you will, but I was not!  Charlie McCullagh is back in Jesus Christ Superstar already!  Tonight, he was one of the fantastic ensemble but he is also the alternative Jesus, so watch out for that performance too!

The entire ensemble cast are an epic unit.  Energetic, enthusiastic, electric – they hit every note, every beat, every breath of this spectacular show.  They are excessive to say the least, and in a larger-than-life production, this has to be the case else they would become entirely lost on stage.  They ensure the pace, the mood and the impact of the show doesn’t sit still for a moment, always evolving, always challenging, always impressing.  The use of symbolism in the show is worth looking out for, from the silver liquid on Judas’ hands representing his betrayal with the pieces of silver, to the eruptions of gold glitter during the whips that Jesus receives, representing the spilling of his blood.  This moment is brutal and you may find yourself squirming in your seat at the inhumanity.  Another intuitively clever moment is the apostles at the last supper as they all freeze as the famous Last Supper painting.  It is actually quite moving to see.  Judas’ end is equally symbolic with him using the microphone cable and leaving it to drop and swing lifelessly in place of himself.  There are so many genius moments in this production of Jesus Christ Superstar that I believe you could watch it again and again and keep finding new nuances to appreciate.

Jesus Christ Superstar
will claw at your emotions, ripping them apart until you are left with a rawness that you don’t quite know what to do with.  It sounds brutal, and it is, but it is so unbelievably brilliant too.  It can be an overwhelming environment as your senses are stimulated to the extreme by music, lights, sound, atmosphere, and an unexpected passionate response.  But this contemporary and artistic original rock opera is an experience not to be missed.  Jesus Christ Superstar is intense, evocative and still trailblazing 50 years later, and after what I’ve just witnessed, will still be trailblazing in another 50!



Jesus Christ Superstar is on at The Lowry, Salford until Saturday 25th May 2024.

Watch our "In Conversation with Shem Omari James" video



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