THE rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar may have been written nearly half a century ago but its tunes and themes are certainly timeless.
With lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber — it was the duo’s first musical to be produced for the professional stage — the musical follows events from the Last Supper to the crucifixion, with adoration, love, betrayal and despair all evident.
The show at the Octagon, performed by the Splinters Theatre Group on their 30th anniversary and featuring a cast of mainly young people aged 14 to 30, starts with an onscreen message from none other than Lord Lloyd Webber himself — wishing them well with the show and urging them to “bring a bit of magic to the old boy”.
And the screen itself deserves a mention, as it is used very effectively — and sometimes graphically — to complement the on-stage action.
Directed by Ian Walker and featuring existing and previous theatre group members, the show follows the age-old story, told through the eyes of Judas, with a very strong and sympathetic performance by Ross Bannister.
Dan Romano plays the title role and, on the opening night, he gained in confidence as the show went on, with his solo performance in Gethsemane very strong and moving.
Performed mostly in modern dress, the events leading up to the inevitable ending unfold through song.
Jessica Rose Curr, from Wickersley, puts in a strong and moving performance as Mary Magdalene.
My fellow theatregoer and I both found ourselves close to tears during her rendition of I Don’t Know How to Love Him.
Keith Harriott in the role of the high priest Caiaphas has a beautiful, deep voice and comes over as very menacing.
John Crowther as Simon and Peter Ben Bason as Peter both put in good performances — the duet featuring Peter and Mary is very moving — as does Mark Holmes playing Pilate.
There is, of course, a feeling of inexorability as the story moves to its conclusion.
After the death of Judas and the flogging of Jesus, both featuring very effective backing screens, the show moves to the final scene, with clever lighting on the cross.
All in all, this is a super piece of musical theatre with impressive singing and dancing and credit must go to all the cast as well as the orchestra and choir.
The show may be nearly 50 years old but it wears well and I think that Lord Lloyd Webber would consider that Splinters have, indeed, brought a touch of magic to the old boy.
The Big Stamp
Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Splinters has been amazed to received messages of support from both of them, trying to outdo each other in their good luck messages! Ben Forster, who played Jesus in the 2012 arena tour, and the cast of Hamilton also sent good wishes as news spread of the production on social media.
So there was a lot of hype to live up to. And Splinters duly delivered the goods.
Director Ian Walker has brought this 1970 show completely up to date. Characters wear modern dress and use mobile phones. The empty multi layered stage suits this show perfectly. A screen at the back of the stage is fully utilised throughout the show, displaying social media messages, close-ups of soloists, background scenery and Judas’ hanging.
The modernisation mainly works well, but there are some areas where it feels a little stretched. For example, Jesus’ followers are portrayed as rebels against the government and the opening scene in this production has them involved in a riot with looting and violence. Then, somewhat incongruously, a smiling Jesus enters planning the next action. Similarly, ‘The Temple’ is the name of a nightclub complete with lap dancing, drug taking and bouncers. There is no indication that this is, or ever has been a holy place, so Jesus’ anger feels unwarranted. But these are minor issues – Splinters should be applauded for doing something different with a show that is almost 50 years old.
Taking the title role of Jesus is Dan Romano, an A level student. He’s very young to be playing the part of 33 year old Jesus, but does so with assured confidence. His softer vocals in particular were very good, with great control. His performance of the iconic and notably very difficult ‘Gethsemane’ was especially impressive and the audience roared their approval. His acting in the flogging scene with Pilate – one of the show’s highlights – was painfully convincing with blood spattering on the screen with every lash.
The protagonist Judas Iscariot is a massive role in the show. Judas’ conflict is that he loves Jesus, but doesn’t accept that he is the son of God, arguing that this delusion gets in the way of the group’s anti-Rome message. He believes that betraying Jesus to the priests is for the greater good. Ross Bannister’s powerful portayal puts that conflict and anguish across to the audience tremendously well. His performance is stunning, his vocals and acting are exceptional and he gave the performance of the night. All his vocals were spot on, but his reprise of ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ was sung and acted to perfection and the audience was moved to silence.
The only principal female part in the show is Mary Magdalene. Played here by Jessica Rose Curr, her rendition of the musical theatre classic ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ came across very well. Her duet with Peter (Ben Bason) in ‘Could We Start Again Please’ was very nicely sung by both actors.
Mark Holmes as Pilate gave a very strong performance of one of the best songs in the show, ‘Pilate’s Dream’ – where Pilate has a dream foretelling that he will be blamed by hundreds of millions crying for Jesus. This was a true highlight in the production. There was a great moment in the flogging scene where the dream was echoed in the music and Pilate realises that his dream is coming true. Holmes portrayed that moment of realisation beautifully.
Herod was played by Bob Flewitt as a camp TV star with dancing girls, cameramen and stage crew with signs instructing the audience to cheer and clap. This was a clever idea but the signs were too random and distracted somewhat from the performance of the song. This device seemed to reduce Herod’s real power and menace.
The main priests Caiaphas and Annas were played well by Keith Harriott and Adam R Walker. Annas was smug and condescending while Caiaphas was more matter of fact. Both actors have very strong singing voices which complemented each other excellently. Harriott’s rich base tones were especially good. There was also a very strong vocal performance from John Crowther as Simon. In fact, there were no weak principal singers here – all of them are worthy of individual praise, even those given just a line or two to sing were strong and clear.
The ensemble worked hard in many guises eg disciples, lepers, nightclub dancers, reporters. Their energetic singing and dancing were of a consistently high standard with choreography by Abigail Oldfield and Leah Rhodes-Burch.
There were several very clever lighting effects from Owain Thomas and Ian Caballero – notably the sickly green light on the lepers while Jesus in his white shirt remained cleanly lit; the striking betrayal scene with the lighting change to black and red; the bright lights on the cross turning red and going out as Jesus died.
The musical direction from Anna Wright was just excellent. The band were first rate, working hard in this fully sung through show, and the sound never overwhelmed the singers.
Last Night I Dreamt Of
The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is set against the backdrop of an extraordinary and universally-known series of events but seen, unusually, through the eyes of Judas Iscariot. Loosely based on the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Superstar follows the last week of Jesus Christ’s life, the story, told entirely through song, explores the personal relationships and struggles between Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene, his disciples, his followers and the Roman Empire.
Spine tingly breath-taking from beginning to end, as a reviewer I would not be lying when I say that this production blew me away more than any other show I have seen in Sheffield and should set the stand for every future professional and amateur production of the show.
Not only does the production have the feel of a stadium tour, making fantastic use of projection, the live band and choir and the whole stage and auditorium area, but as an audience member I would be more than happy to pay stadium tour ticket prices to see it.
I must truly praise the exceptional work of director Ian Walker, musical director Anna Wright. assistant director Adam L Walker and choreographers Abigail Oldfield and Leah Rhoads-Burch for their superb and clever direction, choreography and musical arrangements throughout getting the very best out of all of the cast and company. In addition, from the band I must especially mention guitarist Dave Brocklebank whose solo at the end of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” was the production’s equivalent of Brian May playing on top of Buckingham Palace; and from the production team the make up team whose work on Jesus’s back is some of the best theatrical make up I have seen.
Scenes that will stay with me for a long time to come, showing the entire company and the work of the production team at their most superb and unforgettable, include the opening riot scene, which transformed the 49 year old musical to the present day and confirmed it is just as relevant today, the nightclub Temple, and the paparazzi and media intrusion of “The Arrest”. However, it was the performance of “Superstar” that brought all the musical magic of this production together at it’s very best with show-stopping choreography, vocals, music and costumes ultimately confirming why nearly half a decade later this musical is still going strong and only getting better and better.
As mentioned, all of the cast were superb but I must specifically highlight Jessica Rose Curr as Mary, who could easily give a young Sarah Brightman a run for her money, whose performance of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” moved me to tears and, if I could afford it, I would pay her to sing the beautiful “Everything’s Alright” to my unborn child every night. Ross Banister as Judas, whose previous work with Tudor Players we have enjoyed but in this shows he has been keeping his musical abilities well hidden and that there is something wrong with the world if he is not snapped up for a lead in a West End musical after this production, at his most raw, powerful and dramatically and vocal best at the climax of”Judas’s Death” with the final projected footage kick starting a series of dramatic and powerful images guaranteed to stay with audience members for a long time to come. And of course, Dan Romano as Jesus, who not only had the looks required for the role but is truly up there with Lee Mead and Ben Forester in his performance, with his emotion, range, passion, power, vocals and stage presence at their outstanding best in his performance of the moving “Gethsemane”.
I must also mention Adam R Walker as Annas, who as a website we are already massive fans of from his previous roles, but in this proved he is just as superb a performer when playing the bad guy; Mark Holmes’ powerful and operatic performance as Pilate; and deserving more stage time than he had, Bob Flewitt as the gloriously flamboyant Herod whose moment in the spotlight came in his cabaret style performance of “Herod’s Song” that made me long to see Eddie Izzard in the role.
Massive congratulations to everyone involved in this production, you should all feel extremely proud of what you have achieved, and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, Ben Forester and the cast of Hamilton were more than justified in their good luck messages to you, as based on this production you are all destined to go far in musical theatre and should rightfully sell out every night of this run, with anyone who calls themselves a musical theatre fan not worth that title if they don’t book a ticket. Here’s to Splinters next 30 years of phenomenal productions.
Choreographers & Dance Captain