Jesus Christ Superstar at the Barbican: A hipsterfied take on the evangelical musical
Carleigh Nicholls reviews The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s award-winning production of Jesus Christ Superstar now playing at the Barbican.
As fellow London Student critic Sarah Gibbs told me, Jesus Christ Superstar is like pizza. There’s excellent pizza and there’s bad pizza, but it’s pizza so it will always be base-level good. There’s a reason that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera has been continually staged for almost fifty years. With its spectacular music and lyrics, even the worst production will be enjoyable. Running for two seasons at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, director Timothy Sheader’s award-winning production of Jesus Christ Superstar has now been brought inside to be staged at the Barbican. Being a fan of the show, my expectations were high going into this production. Unfortunately, I was somewhat underwhelmed.
Sheader has really leaned into the Webber and Rice’s original idea of the concept album with its emphasis on rock elements. The band effectively remains on stage throughout the show and the staging is reminiscent of a concert or festival with its glitter and mic stands. There is no doubt this must have worked remarkably well outdoors at Regent’s Park. However, it feels somewhat claustrophobic in the Barbican.
Choreographer Drew McOnie’s jerky and synchronized dances help form a frantic energy, which fits with the mood of the production. Designer Tom Scutt has created a rather bare and industrial looking set, with a giant crucifix acting as a ramp leading to the exposed upper levels. This minimalism works with the concert feeling, but the microphones and mic stands are distracting and annoying props. They create some awkward transitions with actors passing them to each other, and they limit the actors’ mobility. For instance, during the emotional climax when Jesus (Robert Tripolino) sings “Gethsemane,” Tripolino plays his guitar while singing into a mic. Instead of being able to properly emote, he is trapped and immobile standing by a mic stand.
The biggest obstacle in this production, however, is the casting and the stylization. Robert Tripolino as Jesus and Ricardo Afonso as Judas do not work well together. Both actors are immensely talented with amazing range and great skills. However, the age difference between them is distracting: Afonso is at least a decade and a half older than Tripolino and the rest of the disciples, which does emphasize his outsider status, but it is very hard to believe that this older man decided to drop everything and follow this youthful Jesus. He is not very believable as someone who has been Jesus’ “right hand man all along.”
The relationship between Jesus and Judas is central to this story. As such, it is crucial that the relationship between the actors is equal, and Afonso overpowers Tripolino. Tripolino’s Jesus is modern and hipsterfied in his skinny trousers and flowing tops with a guitar in tow. He is sweet and has a doe-eyed innocence about him, but he lacks charisma and strength. He certainly doesn’t look thirty-three, especially next to Judas. It’s hard to believe that anyone would believe him to be the son of God, which is perhaps the point.
There are standouts in this production, however. Matt Cardle ofX-Factor fame plays an electric guitar wielding Pilate, and his version of “Pilate’s Dream” is particularly moving. He clearly shows how tortured and conflicted Pilate is over these events. Sallay Garnett plays Mary Magdalene and her voice is smooth and dreamy. Additionally, Cavin Cornwall as Caiaphas and Nathan Amzi as Annas are truly menacing as the main antagonists.
Nonetheless, Sheader’s energetic show has enough powerful moments to make it worth-while seeing. As Judas proclaims to Jesus in his closing number “If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation,” and a tour of this production is coming to the US in the fall. Although this production isn’t perfect, it’s still Jesus Christ Superstar, and it makes for a rousing and powerful night of theatre. What type of pizza is this? I’d say ham and pineapple.
Jesus Christ Superstar will be playing at the Barbican until August 24, 2019.
Photograph credit: Johan Persson.