Jesus Lives! [by Matt Baker]
Jesus Christ Superstar is a deceptively difficult musical. What seems at first a song-list with the appropriate momentum to a presumptuously well-known plot can also be exposed as an inadequate foothold for character journeys and development. Thankfully, director Oliver Driver has handled this difficulty with excellent casting decisions. Conceptually, the most important thing interpreting the Superstar eponymy literally allows is for musical director Leon Radojkovic to modernise the 1970s arrangement while still remaining faithful to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s composition.
For those previously unfamiliar with Kristian Lavercombe, the name is one that will not be forgotten. An authentic musical theatre performer of equally impressive singer-actor ability, Lavercombe’s nasal resonance and despondent introspection aptly dissociates him from the rest of the cast, without forcibly indicating any superficial otherness to the role. This in turn offers much for Laughton Kora to play as Judas, whose ability to tell story through song and invest emotionally with his fellow cast-mates results in a three-dimensional and resonant performance. Similarly, Julia Deans is able to dissect the Mary Magdalene that is provided in the text, finding a palpable process of reflection over the unforeseen past few days and realisation of genuine love.
The Jewish clergy are the most stylised interpretations of the production, with Elizabeth Whiting’s thick black coats reminiscent of the influential Rasputin. Led by Richard Green’s insanely impressive bass vocals, Gareth William’s piercing, unblinking eyes and Colleen Davis’ (metaphorical) moustache-twirling are balanced by Shane Bosher’s almost imperceptible yet harrowing post-Crucifixion smile. Driver utilises Jeremy Redmore’s natural showmanship to prevent the action around Jesus from stagnating, with Rosita Vai and George Keenan playing at the right level so as to hold interest without becoming a distraction. While the role of Peter doesn’t give Kyle Chuen enough of a chance to show off his incredible vocal power, he makes the most of his Denial.
Andrew Grainger successfully combines the capriciousness of Pilate’s first and second scene, blending the respectively haunted and brutish qualities of a man of power for a dynamic and cathartic trial. The gimmick of casting Madeleine Sami as King Herod certainly reinforces the irreverence of the character, although it misses the potential horror of apathy mixed with gaudiness, and, regardless of Sami’s unquestionable comedic and improvisational skill, I simply don’t find myself amused, instead asking the all too obvious question; why?
The play gains traction in the second act, with John Verryt’s set design allowing for a continuous flow of movement to generate the sense of hysteria both for and against the man and the problem. Driver and movement director Lara Fischel-Chisholm use the ensemble Unitec students to full advantage, giving the production the grandeur that is more often than not missing in New Zealand theatre.
Jesus Christ Superstar has mass appeal, because it strips away the myth behind the man and, consequently, avoids any religious affiliation or dogma, thereby making it accessible to anybody with an affinity for infectious music with a solid beat. This is also, however, its difficulty. A great play occurs when the sum of its parts creates its own mythology unique to its world and themes. Without any philosophical imprint on the design, the world of any new production will remain hollow. Driver offers a variety of designs, and while some, such as the Garden of Gethsemane, are excellently conceptualised from the text, there is nothing holding them together. Thomas Press’ opening sound montage setting a particular tone, but going no further is a perfect example. Although Jesus Christ Superstar may be preaching to a choir of musical theatre fans and resolute ATC patrons with its already nearly sold-out season, any additional ticket sales will result in guaranteed converts with this zealously entertaining production.
Jesus Christ Superstar is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at Q until December 14. For details see Auckland Theatre Company.