Review: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

I was a skeptic; ever since first hearing of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ with the ITV1 talent search in 2011, I found it preposterous that something as sacred as religion had been turned into a mere musical, despite loving musicals in all shapes and forms.

I am now officially a convert.

I cannot stop thinking about the performance of ‘JCS’ running at the Birmingham Hippodrome in November 2015. It was stunning and – more than that – it made me rethink my view of one of society’s oldest institutions. I am by no means undergoing a religious conversion, but I’d always thought of it almost as a moralistic tale where people suffered artfully and told long rambling tales to make us understand how to behave – not any more. The suffering of Judas, Pilate and Jesus is haunting in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical, so much so that by the end I was ready to cry. In particular, the literally painfully drawn out final scene, where Jesus is nailed screaming to the cross, was hideous for both the obvious and more obscure meanings. His cries of anguish were tormenting, but equally it made us realise: no matter what else he might have been, Jesus was a man of flesh and blood when this happened, and felt everything, calling for his mother and water, never denying his essential humanity. It was here that Glenn Carter, as Jesus, really outshone himself; yes, Gethsemane was stunningly sung, but this was his piece de resistance, and it was truly humbling.

Having seen my fair share of musical theatre, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen such a well choreographed or suitably used cast before. Their movements were so well coordinated without looking false, and intensified the musical dramatics no end; the highlight for this had to be during ‘The Temple’ scene, where Jesus’ cry of ‘heal yourself’ was riveting in the midst of the claustrophobia around him, the faceless and helpless people literally drowning him in their requests.

Two things I have to pull out, though, are Tim Rogers and Rachel Adedejie as Judas and Mary Magdalene. They both had something the other lacked, one more so than another. Judas was hugely moving; his constant lurking presence on stage made his final confused status as victim and murderer compelling. However, there were times when his voice was perhaps not used to its potential, and that potential was clearly there because ‘Superstar’ was astounding right at the end, but before it was perhaps too heavily focused on acting rather than singing. Needless to say this was incredibly minor, particularly when the reacting to things like Jesus’ beatings and arrest were so moving, but noticeable in the face of performances such as Tim Minchin’s in the 2012 revival.

The opposite happened with Mary Magdalene. She felt like a token presence on stage, which was mildly irritating, as though a woman was necessary for looks but nothing else. Likewise, her singing was flawless, but in an idealised way; there was no trouble, no heartbreak behind it, which made ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ slightly hollow, which is a shame for such an amazing song. Her acting needed vamping up and injecting into her singing to make the perfect performance.

If I had to pick a favourite segment, it has to be Caiphus and Anas’ initial scenes within the council. ‘This Jesus Must Die’ is my favourite arrangement; the tempo, variety and characters were stunning. A close second had to be ‘Trial Before Pilate’, which was utterly brilliant; seeing Pilate as a victim was much like seeing Judas as one – a moving revelation. His final exasperated pleas to Jesus were breathtaking, and the transformation between empowered statesman to a man holding life in his hands was flawless – it was definitely here where I started to lose control of my emotions!

The ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ tour comes to an end soon, but I can only live in hope that it will restart again in the imminent future, because I would be one of the first to show my devotion at a theatrical temple to such a breathtaking and lyrically infectious musical.

Review: ‘Phantom of the Opera’ @ Her Majesty’s Theatre

A royal performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre

On Saturday 22nd January 2011, I saw one of the most stunning theatre productions I am ever likely to witness, beyond anything that modern technology can dream of producing: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’.

With fantastic staging effects, astounding actors and a sensational musical score, ‘Phantom’ was a hauntingly beautiful production. The music blew me away: I wanted the opening score to keep going, I wanted to be able to close my eyes and just listen to it forever. Enough can never be said in praising a fantastic orchestra, and this one was no exception. Add to that the cast’s voices, trained to perfection, and the combination was bound to send chills running through you. The biggest cheer of the night went to John Owen Jones, who played the Phantom, a man whose Phantom could have reduced anyone to tears. Needless to say, Sofia Escobar’s Christine Daae and Will Barrat’s Raoul were both fantastic: the passion they maintained throughout the performance was so intense and well-maintained that it was hard not to fall in love with all of them.

The storyline itself is simple yet allows a large amount of room for artistic creativity: the Phantom’s obsessive love for Christine replacing her father’s companionship, the theatre within the theatre, and the love triangle framing the plot all enable various interpretations, as well as showing what stagecraft is really about. The best bits were the chandelier falling, the Phantom’s hiding place during ‘All I Ask of You’ and the river that takes the Phantom and Christine to his lair. Whilst everything was clearly a spectacle, it was so well-timed and executed that it felt real, not like something that had been done for effect. I’ve said repeatedly since leaving the theatre, that with all the wonders of film technology, the theatre version triumphed against the film adaptation, I was nowhere near as mesmerised and enthralled as I was in the production. The chandelier falling was absolutely amazing: it was clearly a defining moment in every section of the play, showing the changes throughout the plot, as the theatre went from riches to ruins during the operatic war. And the river was just beautifully set up, despite the limits of the stage it really did look and appear as though they were gliding gracefully towards the Phantom’s domain.

The acting, as I’ve already said, was superb. The Phantom’s clear inability to deal with his own passion was heartbreaking, and made it impossible to blame him for what he did, even though he was obviously losing his control over the theatre and Christine within his desperate acts. Likewise, it was hard to see fault in Christine’s love for both the Phantom and Raoul, when the Phantom clearly gave her the protection she craved in the absence of her father, whilst Raoul was able to show her a safe and secure way of life after the music ends. And Raoul…well, yum. He was everything the gallant hero should be: suave, passionate for the love of his life, and absolutely gorgeous. They all combined to show how the love triangle had no definitive right or wrong outcome: Raoul would die for love, the Phantom would kill for it, while Christine is left with a heart-wrenching choice that led her to show the Phantom he didn’t have to be alone, but that he couldn’t control love. The supporting cast was stellar: Carlotta (Wendy Ferguson) and Monsieur’s Firmin (Barry James) and Andre (Gareth Snook) provided the comic relief to remove tension, before it was built back up again to monumental heights! Equally, Madame Giry (Cheryl McAvoy) was a stern influence to show how the Phantom affects everyone, not just those vulnerable to his influences.

My favourite song had to be the titular ‘Phantom of the Opera’, as well as ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ and ‘Masquerade’, although I don’t think there was a single song that I didn’t love to be honest! They’re a credit to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s genius, and I have to say that I respect him so much more after seeing ‘Phantom’ than I ever did before, he really is an artistic star, which makes me incredibly excited to hopefully see the sequel, ‘Love Never Dies’.

To end on the biggest cliche possible, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is definitely inside my mind; with its gorgeous display of musical creativity, superb acting and fabulous scenery, I don’t think there’s a way to avoid being intoxicated with the ‘Phantom’ and its twisted and chillingly beautiful love story.