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Jesus Christ Superstar review – a triumphant return for live theatre

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Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London
This concert version of Timothy Sheader’s revelatory 2016 production made a virtue of distancing on stage – was there a roof it would have blown off

‘Could we start again please?” asks Mary Magdalene in the lustrous 1970 rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Theatres have waited months for the same question to be answered since they closed in March amid the coronavirus outbreak. So it’s tempting to sing out your own “hosanna, hey sanna” when a company of performers assemble on stage, two metres apart, and triumphantly rip off their masks at the top of this rainswept open-air revival.

Seating capacity has been reduced by over two-thirds for an interval-free, 90-minute concert-style version of the musical, leaving audiences to luxuriate in extra space, but requiring the strictly socially distanced actors to still convey intimacy on stage. The sense that we’re all in this experiment together is accentuated by Tom Scutt’s design (a reworking of Soutra Gilmour’s Evita set), whose metal tiers mirror the raked auditorium. It serves to draw us into Drew McOnie’s choreography, whether among Jesus’s massed followers, drawn as if to a blinding sun in the opening, or the jolting mob ordering his climactic crucifixion.

This is not the second but the third coming at Regent’s Park for Timothy Sheader’s revelatory 2016 production, which returned the following year and also had an indoor run at the Barbican and a US tour. The show is back as a last-minute bit of programming after the theatre had already postponed its entire 2020 summer season to next year.

Any elation stirred by its helter-skelter overture, with that ominous guitar lick emanating from a studio-style hut for the band upstage, quickly gives way to frustration. The production grinds to a halt when the heavens open after a couple of songs. But it resumes after a short break with Maimuna Memon, superb as Mary, singing the ballad Everything’s Alright, which soothes out an unusual 5/4 time signature, bathed in light. The anointing scene inescapably demands proximity; in the 2012 arena tour, Melanie C – while in fine voice – calmed Jesus with shoulder massages and temple rubs that suggested the start of a day-spa pamper package. Performed two metres apart tonight, it becomes more a balm for us all amid this year of pandemic turmoil.

Elsewhere, distancing increases the sense of characters’ isolation – as much a theme as the throng mentality – and gives the production a certain starkness. The relentless drive of The Temple, in which Jesus stumbles through a push-and-pull marketplace, spotlights two dancers centre-stage.

As Jesus, Pepe Nufrio conveys a higher calling while grappling with a celebrity status that sees his every word twisted, his fame as worn as the flecked gold crosses etched into the set design. Ricardo Afonso’s raging Judas crucially never overpowers the balance, and Afonso shrinks within himself in horror after the betrayal, which leaves his hands and arms strikingly stained the colour of his pieces of silver. Later, fistfuls of glitter are used for the flagellation.

Most revivals embrace the kitsch extravagances of Jesus Christ Superstar; this one makes sparing but striking use of glitz. There is a superbly measured comic glee in the chorus led by Caiaphas (Ivan de Freitas, his deep voice rumbling up as if from underneath the park itself). Elsewhere, Shaq Taylor wrings much more than you’d expect from King Herod’s Song and, if there was a roof here, Cedric Neal would be raising it with Simon Zealotes. It’s one high point among many, in an evening that revels in the joy of people coming together and the glory of theatrical talent getting back to work.

 
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