Former Idol Rob Mills stars in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock musical to end all rock musicals
It’s hard to believe it watching this production, but Jesus Christ Superstar was once the pinnacle of cool in this country. When the late, great Jon English poured himself into his spandex to deliver ‘Heaven on Their Minds’, in the role of Judas Iscariot, back in 1972, he was bolstering the reign of this new form they labelled ‘rock opera’, which had been established only three years before with Hair. Two decades later another Jon, Jon Stevens, would pour himself into black leather to remind the country of the inherent sex appeal of Jesus’ betrayer.
Judas is the role we remember because he is flawed and pitiful and gets the best songs. The Jesus that is depicted here is a much harder character to embrace: it’s a quirk of the musical that the central role, and clearly the raison d’être of the whole exercise, is such a whiny, passive-aggressive bore. He’s lucky his followers follow him to the local shops, let alone the borders of a spiritual revolution.
Producer Harry M. Miller struck gold twice with this musical, responsible as he was for the original production in 1972 and the Arena Spectacular production in 1992. Director Gale Edwards – whose two earlier iterations of the show were massive hits in the UK – tries for a hat-trick, only to fall badly at the final hurdle. This production comes across as a rookie’s folly, not the seasoned sublimation of a pro. The issues begin with the casting, but they go so deep into the production’s DNA that the casting often seems the least of its worries.
The history of true-blue-celebrity-casting has two clear poles: Craig McLachlan as Frank N Furter occupies the triumphant end of the spectrum, and Dannii Minogue as (wait for it, kid you not) Lady Macbeth comfortably occupies the other. No one gets points for guessing where Rob Mills as Jesus Christ fits on this spectrum. He looks like Donny Osmond only he lacks, to quote this decade’s coolest musical, “a little Donny Osmond flair”. Even Hillsong members wouldn’t turn up to his gigs. But bland looks and negligible stores of charisma are one thing; a voice that simply can’t perform the role is another.
It’s at this point, usually, that Judas comes to save the show, but Zoy Frangos has little of the swagger possessed by the Jons who made the role famous, and certainly none of the voice. He isn’t disastrous but he isn’t sufficient either; too often the vocal demands are beyond him, and his performance feels like it merely scratches the surface of despair and guilt. Edwards has him run up and down stairs a lot, as if to compensate for a lack of inner movement.
Alinta Chidzey fares better as Mary Magdalene, largely because her vocal performance is consistently strong and she doesn’t strive for effect. The part is hard to pull off; the character is supposedly a prostitute but she’s so chaste, so pure, it’s as if Rice and Lloyd Webber got her confused with the other Mary. Thankfully, her songs are the most beautiful of the night, and Chidzey delivers them with poise and understatement.
Only four other performers make any kind of impression: Michael Cormick is a tortured Pilate, with a final scene that brings Michelangelo’s Pieta to life in a strange psychosexual inversion; Paul Hughes is a terrifically austere arsehole as Caiaphas; and Stephen McDowell is a superbly repulsive Annas, with slicked-back hair and a brilliantine voice to match. That leaves Trevor Ashley to up the chintz and the cheese as Herod. Decked in gold, he brings to mind Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty with severe anger management issues, and is one of the best things to happen to the production.
Edwards directs her ensemble to do the strangest things, pulling faces and gesticulating wildly, overplaying key scenes so that they bring to mind Rock Eisteddfods from the late ’90s. The beggars recall the mutant subterranean humans in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and the soldiers are the dead spit of extras from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Even the apostles look like rejected members of the Manson family. Kim Bishop’s costumes are deliberately eclectic and drawn heavily from pop culture, but must the money lenders in the temple look like something out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon?
Only in the very end, when polyester angels from a ’70s disco start swirling their silver capes and belting out the title number, does the extreme tackiness and camp begin to look like a vision. Edwards seems to be saying that we live in horrific, ugly and extremely vulgar times; anything of purity that could rise in this swamp could only be crushed and mocked until it’s dead. If only her cast could have matched her audacity, could have made something beautiful amongst the crassness, this might have been a hat-trick indeed. Although, given the silliness of the design, the emotional flippancy of the performances, the tonal deafness of the director’s dramatic choices, it feels like a long bow to draw.
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