It seems extremely apt for the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park to resurrect its celebrated production of Jesus Christ Superstar just as live theatre starts to take the first tentative steps back.
True, this is a stripped down concert version with social distancing between performers, but I would call it a semi-staged production rather than a simple singing of the songs. We attended the matinee, so of course missed the full effect of a production designed to be watched as the sun goes down, with corresponding set design and lighting hinting at the cross motifs and blood red shades of the original production.
Jesus Christ Superstar was written in 1970, so like Godspell it reaches its fiftieth birthday in this strange times. It was filmed in a definitive version in 1973. It is a musical very much of its day, although it has been restaged and rethought on a number of occasions. Small lyric changes may throw fans of many years standing but every score has to evolve.
As this is such a tactile musical in its usual form, it seems strange at first to see scenes with principals the requisite two metres apart, but the power of the piece soon transcends that. The main roles of Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdelene are rotated so we saw Pepe Nufrio, Ricardo Afonso, and Maimuna Memon.
The small ensemble effortlessly double on roles where needed and interpret Drew McOnie’s stripped-down choreography well. The Pharisees turned in unison as Judas made his fateful decision of betrayal, the dancers and traders in the temple morph into the beggars and afflicted who crowd the man they see as the Saviour (“don’t crowd me, there’s too little of me”)
No aspect of the singing can be faulted: there are no weak links here. The three leads: Nufrio knocking Gethsemane literally out of the park, Afonso again bringing all the facets of Judas to life as he did last year at the Barbican. Memon reveals a melodic voice and a steely sweetness to her Mary.
David Thaxton’s Pilate shines in rock star mode, strutting with electric guitar, then befuddled by the prisoner of peace who manipulates him. Ivan de Frietas and Nathan Azim lead the Pharisees with a mix of powerful manipulation and strident sarcasm.
Directed by Timothy Sheader, this concert of Superstar is a celebration of the human condition and the importance of faith. In Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s vision, both Judas and Pilate are shown as rounded people who have moments of weakness.
From the opening scene, where the masked ensemble walk on, through to the ending of forgiveness and reconciliation between the betrayed and the betrayer, this show stays sharp and relevant.
What of the social distancing aspect as it applies to the audience? You queue for temperature, ticket and bag checks, then enter a one-way system for bar or toilets. Hand sanitiser is provided and masks are required if not eating or drinking.
Once in the theatre, only seats made available are in use: every other row is empty, and there is a two seat gap between “bubbles”. Very well managed although seeing an auditorium with so many empty seats and a masked audience will never feel normal.
And yes, it rained intermittently (would it be a real British summer without inclement weather?) but honestly, with a cast and band – musical director Tom Deering – of this quality, it hardly matters.
Jesus Christ Superstar continues until 27 September and you can book at the theatre website. If your chosen performance is sold out you may also be able to purchase a ticket to watch it relayed to a screen on the lawn for £20.
Photo credits: Mark Senior