This is a visually spectacular show which is defeated by a weak first act and the cast’s poor diction.

Credit: Paul Coltas

Jesus Christ Superstar is a global commercial success and an important reference point in musical theatre history. This re-imaging of the Easter story as a sung-through rock opera premiered in 1970 and has been revived semi-regularly ever since. This revival, directed by Timothy Sheader, was produced by Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2016 and won the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival. This week, the UK tour commenced in Manchester, and the production tours until August 2024.

With design by Tom Scutt and lighting by Tom Curran, there are some strong choices in this revival. The set consists of wooden scaffolding and an inverted crucifix set on a diagonal which provides depth, heights, and separation. The main characters use levels and heights as a visual representation of shifting power dynamics.

Credit: Paul Coltas

Costuming is also effective. For example, Jesus’s followers initially dress in a grey colour palette and their modern oversized hoodies resemble peasant shawls. As the betrayal(s) near, they adopt the red shades of the enemies. When they torture Jesus, they wear white gowns evocative of a Catholic priest’s vestments, and after his death they revert to their original costumes. These choices tell a silent story of desperation, gradual betrayal, temporary moral superiority, and an eventual return to desperation. This echoes the arc of Jesus Christ Superstar without detracting from the show’s other elements.

Curran’s lighting is clever as a simple colour scheme is utilised in innovative ways. God’s influence is represented by a golden glow, while the antagonists’ influence is represented by a harsher blue/silver beam. The golden glow is more consistent; usually dominating the sides of the stage and appearing in motifs throughout the production (such as the followers’ hand-held crosses). The harsher light is mainly cast on the inverted crucifix and is utilised to draw focus on significant props. For example, the blood on Judas’s hands is silver, and when the blood catches the silver light, the visual and narrative impact is spectacular. These three elements are excellent throughout but cannot overcome the burden of a weak first act.

The text of Jesus Christ Superstar has narrative issues, and no revival can change these. All productions suffer from characterisation, plot, and pacing issues. Even the most developed character, Judas, has a superficial arc. Initially presented as an upright moralist, money quickly persuades him to betray Jesus. This production brilliantly uses one of Jesus’s followers to represent Judas’s conscience; this added a much-needed dimension to the character.

Credit: Paul Coltas

The text of Jesus Christ Superstar is limiting for any production company. Acknowledging this, there is a problem specific to this production; the actors’ diction is poor, and therefore the establishment of characters and plot is difficult. Three actors are the exception to this rule, which suggests this isn’t a technical issue. As the first act is mostly sung dialogue, good diction is essential. I attended with a friend who confirmed she had the same issue. We could follow the plot because we knew the Easter story, but the score’s impact was mostly lost on us. In the second act, there was more action and physical/visual cues, but diction remained frustrating.

I don’t recommend this revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. While the stage effects are enjoyable, the story and its delivery are not strong.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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