Note: Jesus Christ Superstar has been re-directed by Gale Edwards and re-designed by Peter J Davison since its two year run at the West End's Lyceum Theatre. In this new touring production, Lee Rhodes plays 'Jesus', Ben Goddard 'Judas', Golda Rosheuval 'Mary Magdalene', Fred Johanssen 'Pontius Pilate' and Nathan Harmer 'King Herod'.
Below are the What's On Stage reviews of the West End production, featuring two different casts and two very different opinions on this Lloyd-Webber classic!
A rock opera is something you ll either love or hate. However, if the 70s, non-stop singing and a good sprinkling of hairy beards aren t enough to make you flinch, you ll probably love Jesus Christ Superstar.
This loud, brash rock extravaganza - a famous collaboration from the indomitable duo Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice - is based on the last seven days of the life of Jesus. Although there are plenty of catchy tunes, such as ‘What s The Buzz , the ending is inevitably rather depressing as, one by one, Jesus s disciples either let him down or denounce him. So don t expect a happy, surprise turn of events here.
The new cast features Glenn Carter, who formerly played Simon, as Jesus and BBC2 s This Life star Ramon Tikaram as Judas. Both flesh out their parts very well. Tikaram renders a particularly convincing Judas, proving that he has a strong voice as well as great acting ability. However, the star of the show continues to be Joanna Ampil (formerly Kim in Miss Saigon) as Mary Magdalene. As well as her sympathetic portrayal of the character, her voice shines through especially well in a very moving version of ‘I Don t Know How To Love Him .
Another popular character with the audience is the extravagant and rather camp King Herod, played by Martin Callaghan whose performance livens up Act Two. Sarcastically, he pleas with Jesus to turn water into wine or perhaps walk across a swimming pool as proof that he is indeed the son of God.
The current production of Jesus Christ Superstar, with it s slightly funkier and updated score, shows that 70s rock opera can indeed stand the ravages of time. This sceptical reviewer was initially daunted by the prospect of over two hours of amplified rock music but I left won over and a true convert.
A final note on the surroundings - the deliciously opulent Lyceum Theatre - which is home to this current production. The entire theatre is newly renovated with a great looking bar and plush seats to ensure that at the very least theatre-goers are comfortable and well watered.
Anna Patmore, October 1997
Another reviewer had a less positive verdict on this production and its former cast:
Jesus Christ Superstar, like most Lloyd Webber mega-hits, is a rock opera. This is very different from your traditional musical where players will launch gamely from scene into song. In a rock opera, everything is sung. Although this is not my favourite theatrical form, it can be quite powerful - depending on the strength of the music.
Unfortunately, Jesus Christ Superstar score is not up to it. Given its history (the play first opened in 1971), I expected to recognise many of the songs. I was mistaken. Only the title song and Mary Magdalene's I Don't Know How to Love Him struck a chord. Sadly, their renditions were brief and most of the other songs were uncatchy and unmemorable. And also remarkably dated with lots of electric guitar solos, flower-power lyrics ('What's the buzz?') and Alice-Cooper-like wailing.
The numbers were also marred by the sheer loudness of the music which was so overamplified that the theatre physically shuddered on more than one occasion. This left the actors screaming their lines to avoid being drowned out by the instrumental - which most failed to do anyway. Drowned out or not, though, their words were usually distorted and indecipherable.
Music aside, this is an unmoving play. It tells the story of the last seven days of the life of Jesus Christ. And a very bleak telling at that with little light relief. (Christians be warned - don't expect any resurrection here. This is an extremely uncharitable reading of the gospel - check out the Presbytarian Church's analysis for further proof.)
Although Steve Balsamo has a remarkable voice, we feel little for his Christ, a pathetic and disillusioned figure who, for the most part, just launches himself around the stage, long hair swishing. Zubin Varla throws himself into the role of Judas. I suspect that Varla is a very good actor but his volatile screeching did not endear him. My favourite was the sympathetically-portrayed Mary Magdalene, played by Joanna Ampil (best known as Kim in Miss Saigon) who has a beautiful and well-pitched voice.
Apollo Leisure, owners of the Lyceum, have spent a lot of money recently promoting Jesus Christ Superstar with ads in nationals newspapers and lifesize, bus-shelter posters. But all the expense and hoohah cannot, sadly, lift this production out of a loud and overwrought mediocrity.
Review by Terri Paddock, July 1997
But the following readers disagree....
I have to disagree with your review of Jesus Christ Superstar. I don't think the production is dated. In fact, having seen the original show in London in the 70s and the film that came out at the time, I thought it might be. I saw the current show at the Lyceum in August and found it a fresh interpretation and was surprised how the music had stood the test of time.
Nor was it 'overamplified'. It was moving and very well sung. Having seen many of the top casts of musicals in recent years, I would comment on how I have rarely seen a show where all the cast had such strong voices.
I find it hard to understand how you can single out either the performance of Joanna Ampil or the song 'I Don't Know How to Love Him' as a highlight, good though they were. Surely, to anyone professing to be a critic, 'Gethsemane' must have been one highlight, Judas's suicide another.
I have spoken to a number of theatre goers, all of whom agree with me that this production sends shivers up the spine in the same way that the first seeing of 'Les Miserables' did. Also, have a look around the Net to see what others think - there aren't many who agree with your analysis.
If I were you, I'd go to see Jesus Christ Superstar again this month before they change the cast and see if you change your mind.
Susan Counsell, September 1997
I also totally disagree with your reviewer's comments on this marvellous musical. I also saw Jesus Christ Superstar in the 70s and believe that this current production is far better than the original. It has not dated. I may be old enough to remember the original and could be biased, but my young friends (under 20) were just as impressed as I was. Particularly with Steve Balsamo's performance. He will be greatly missed. 'Gethsemane' was magnificent. In my mind, Balsamo's was a classic performance and everyone I have spoken to since who has seen it says the same.
Patricia Hope, Dublin, September 1997