Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Jesus Christ Superstar, PeeWee Productions, AIS Arena

Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the perrenials. It will be revived as long as people appreciate the hard-rocking score (possibly Lloyd Webber's best), the incisive lyrics (Tim Rice is still Lloyd Webber's strongest lyricist), and the interesting angle it takes on the last week of Jesus' life - by telling the story largely from Judas' point of view, and by omitting the resurrection, it leaves unresolved the key question of whether Jesus was human or deity, making it a show about Christ that isn't just for Christians (it's the perfect show for an agnostic, in fact, because it decides nothing).

This Arena Spectacular version has many strong things to recommend it. The vocals and orchestra under the direction of Ian McLean with vocal coaching by Sharon Tree are key among these - the entire cast is in good solid voice and the band really rocks when the show is required to rock and are delicate and sensitive when the score gets sensitive.

Dramatically, things aren't always as strong. Key in any production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" is the dynamic between Jesus and Judas - a passionate, argumentative, engaged debate about what action they should be taking, a strong bond that falls apart in ways that leads them both to their deaths. Almost none of that lands here - Michael Falzon's Judas is vocally excellent, but too often his body-language and attitudes suggest a guy who's mildly perturbed rather than being ripped apart by his passions. Similarly, Luke Kennedy's Jesus sounds great but spends a lot of his time casually strolling around the set rather than being more and more desperate to seize his limited time to reach his followers. His fleeing from the lepers during "The Temple" is particularly dudded - there's no fear or sense that he's ever really overwhelmed. Both are strongest on their last substantial numbers - Falzon's title song has all the sarcastic, jumpy energy that is lacking everywhere else in the show, and Kennedy's "Gesthemene" (possibly because he's blocked to stand centre stage in strong lighting with no movements) lands great.

Because of the lack of tension between Jesus and Judas, there's a flow-on effect to Jenna Roberts' Mary Magdelene. Mary is meant to be the cooling, calming point between Jesus and Judas. If there's no tension, anything she does to try to produce calm between the two just feels weird and unmotivated - they're already pretty chilled out, why bother exhorting them to calm down?

Elsewhere, there's a lot of strength in the supports. Max Gambale has a great mix of imperial hauteur and an increasing sense of dread and frustration as Pilate. Gordon Nicholson is astounding as Herod - he's massively high camp, with an almost Frankenfurter vibe (Nicholson matches my imagination of what Reg Livermore did with Herod in the original Australian production).Zack Drury's Caiaphas is suitably imposing and menacing, Will Huang's Simon Zealotes gives a bounce and energy to the whole show (he's also the only soloist to join in on the choreography), and Nick Valois in the under-written role of Peter gives great energy to both his songs (although "Could We Start Again Please?" seems weirdly directed as a love song between him and Mary Magdelene, rather than two friends joining together to wonder what went wrong with the man they both love).

Phil Goodwin's lighting design is pretty goddamn spectacular - it's a bit keen on sending out the blinding-effects into the audience now and again, but there's a great sense of spectacle (in partular, the uber-gaudy title-song gives Judas' vegas-style hustling a good backrdrop, and the "tv static" crucifix during the crucifixion is a great image which it would have been great to see supported elsewhere in the production - I have a feeling this is borrowed from the recent Arena tour that used a lot more multimedia, where the static could have made a bit more of a statement rather than just be there as a nice image). Jordan Kelly's choreography is good in bigger crowd numbers like "Hosanna" and "Simon Zealotes", although I'm not in love with the Up-With-People-style modern-dress dancers in the title song - their moves seem a bit too clean-cut for what should be a bit more down-and-dirty.

All in all, this is a production with a lot of strengths but with a bit of a dramatic hole where the centre should be. There's some great work here that could have been stronger with better, tighter and more passionate direction.

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