WhatsOnStage Logo

Michael Coveney: Park delight as Jesus jumps

WhatsOnStage logo
"The role of Jesus Christ," Andrew Lloyd Webber says without a trace of irony, "is the biggest prize I have ever been able to offer anyone." The role of Christ truly is in the hands of the lord, but I fear we need Graham Norton to exploit the full comic potential of this situation.

Unfortunately, Superstar, ALW's fourth talent competition following the hysterically enjoyable and musically fascinating searches for Maria, Joseph, Nancy and the next Judy Garland (not), has jumped ship from the BBC and climbed aboard ITV. So far, the programmes are noticeably less well made, and Amanda Holden, vacuous beyond belief, is no match for Graham as the sing-off host.

As we are continuously reminded, the new Jesus will have to work his miracle in a series of huge arena concerts, something that seemed remotely impossible as each of the 40 furry-faced little hamsters warbled to the maestro in his back garden on Majorca.

Actually, there were only 20 at this stage. Forty had flown out and 20 flew straight back, presumably to save on the food and water bills. More cost cutting followed when the twenty sandalled saviours, having ponced around the swiming pool for a few days, were, quite rightly, sent home to blighty on a punishing 25-hour coach trip.

This was justified by the fact that being a rock star was a very hard life and involved travelling between gigs. The 20  disciples swallowed this as they camped out on some of Europe's finest motorways and one or two even pretended to be washed out and hung over when they turned up in London the next day to be told they were failing to make the grade.

Outdoor theatre has been a trial for everyone this summer. Maybe ALW should have taken a look at a few of the guys who have had to survive the worst summer in living memory in the Open Air Theatre production of Ragtime for which, when it's been on, you can buy a ticket for 25 pence.

On Friday night I shivered my way to a state of near-terminal pneumonia at Holland Park Opera, consoled only by the company of my colleagues, the hospitality of my hosts and the sheer loveliness of Tchaikovsky's music in Eugene Onegin.

What an amazing project is Holland Park Opera, now in its 16th season. The initial policy of performing rarities in the repertoire persists with the occasional encroachment of a classic, all great shows produced to a very high standard and played and sung to ditto. (More lessons here for the Mack and Mabel guys at Southwark Playhouse.) The arena is covered by a white marquee, so you can only hear the rain rather than endure it. The wind blows around quite a lot, though, and this had the unhappy side effect (as far as I was concerned) of silencing the peacocks in the park.

I much enjoyed Deborah Warner's Onegin at ENO last year, but it was  a special treat to hear the piece sung in Russian (with good sur-titles) in Daniel Slater's production, and Anne Leese as Tatyana made something espcially moving and beautiful of the twenty-minute "letter" song.

Make no mistake, the demands of Jesus Christ Superstar on the lead singers are no less great. I long to hear the new digitally re-mastered recording of the original double album recording on which Murray Head sang Judas (Tim Minchin will find that  a very hard act to follow), Ian Gillan of Deep Purple rasped his way brilliantly through Jesus and Mike d'Abo of Manfred Mann sang Herod's camp challenge number ("Prove to me that you're no fool, walk across my swimming pool.")

Initially, of course, Tim Rice was equally involved in the casting of the leads; he was far more immersed in the pop industry at that time than was Andrew. As I understand it, Tim can exercise a veto on any winner of the Superstar search, though I suspect he might not be too put out (he's put out, for a start, by the programme anyway) should the winner be one of Nathan from Berkshire, Niall from Bray or Rory from the Wirral.

The first JC Superstar in London had many unknowns in the cast, too, but they were in their proper station, in the chorus: Floella Benjamin, Diane Langton, Elaine Paige and Richard O'Brien. Paul Nicholas was fine as Jesus, quite soft and sympathetic, as 21 year-old Jeff from Northern Ireland, or sweet little Afnan, the doctor's son, might be.

I don't hold out much hope for Jon, the holiday camp entertainer, who broke down in the lord's rockery on Majorca. But what's this? Big bruiser Roger Wright, who played Simba in The Lion King for ages, is also a contender, and he's hardly an unknown quantity, is he?

For the first live concert last night, Andrew was joined on the judging panel by Dawn French, who liked the tightness of David's trousers and almost everything else about everybody; Melanie C, who'll be singing Mary Magdalene in the production and can therefore say whom she'd like to spend most time with; and Jason Donovan, who seems over-anxious to keep in the good lord's good books.

At least they're quite a witty, articulate panel, and have some idea of what is required, which is more than Barry Humphries did, for instance, when he was on the Nancy panel, even though he'd been in the original production of Oliver! Dawn French leered lasciviously at pretty boy Niall, saying he had something of Lee Mead about him and that Lee Mead, he should remember, married one of the judges...

"Dirk has a lot more to offer than he's showing us here," said Andrew in the intermediary auditions in a warehouse that looked like a storage plant for Toys-R-Us, and you suddenly wondered if all those stories about drug-fuelled orgies backstage at rock concerts could possibly be true. Perhaps some of these lads are letting themselves in for something bigger even than a stage performance.

And the way Amanda Holden paws and coos over them between takes is enough to make the blood run cold. "Our lovely Jesuses!" she shrieks as the good times roll and the fatted calf of show business is wheeled centre stage and the audience starts smacking its lips.


Tagged in this Story