Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (Barbican Theatre)

Following two smash-hit seasons at Regent’s Park, Timothy Sheader’s acclaimed production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is resurrected with a new cast at the Barbican.

Forty-nine years since the piece exploded into public consciousness via the original concept album, Sheader’s revival both pays homage to the musical’s record roots whilst totally reinvigorating the work for a modern audience. The Barbican SUPERSTAR is almost played like a rock concert, like a theatrically realised Glastonbury condensed onto the London stage. Sheader’s ideas are thrillingly supported by Tom Scutt and Lee Curran’s inspired set and lighting designs, brilliantly bolstering the gig-like atmosphere.

The 2019 Barbican production has been completely recast from the Open Air Theatre mountings, with Ricardo Afonso (Judas) and Robert Tripolino (Jesus) having the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of the previously-acclaimed Tyrone Huntley and Declan Bennett from 2016 and 2017. Afonso (originally cast but never performed as Judas at Regent’s Park) is a vocal powerhouse, fitting the notoriously difficult role of Judas like a glove. You’d be hard-pressed to find a vocalist with the range of Afonso on any theatre stage in the UK, and it’s a pleasure to hear his renditions of the epic Lloyd Webber score. Likewise, Tripolino puts a unique spin on the role of Jesus, looking for most of the production like an entitled-boyband member. Tripolino shows serious vocal prowess in a soul-exposing version of ‘Gethsemane,’

The dynamic between Judas and Jesus in the Barbican version adds another level of intrigue to proceedings. Unlike the original Open Air production, Afonso, noticeably older than Tripolino’s Jesus, plays Judas with an underlying sense of consternation, rather than the usual jealousy often associated with the role. Afonso’s Judas has a stronger sense of sympathy with the audience as he (and we) watch the adulated Jesus revel with a type of cocky assuredness, his followers pawing and fawning over the handsome Tripolino’s every word. Only in the second act do we start to empathise with Jesus as he comes to terms with his own demise in ‘Gethsemane.’ Tripolino plays the Crucifixion beautifully, pitiably wailing for his father and mother, it’s genuinely heartbreaking.

The pair are strongly supported by the new 2019 cast with particular praise for Matt Cardle’s Pilate, the singer-turned-actor playing the role with absolute torment. Likewise, Sallay Garnett is in beautiful voice as Mary Magdelene, providing a unique folksy twist on famous songs like ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ and ‘Everything’s Alright’.

All elements of the performance are truly a pleasure to behold with Drew McOnie’s laser-precise choreography having a narrative of its own in the piece. As the piece moves towards is dark ending and Jesus followers turn from revelry to anarchy, McOnie’s choreography becomes paced and brutal, moving the action along at breakneck speed. I must also make reference to makeup supervisor Jessica Plews, as the shocking revelation of Jesus’ bloodied and beaten body in the ‘Trial of Pilate’ genuinely raises the stakes of the action.

Sheader’s new production breathes electrifying new life into what, at 50 years old, could have become a tired classic. JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR has been truly resurrected, and you should get a chance to see what might be the definitive production before it leaves the capital this summer. If for nothing else, go for the powerhouse performance of Ricardo Afonso, your ears will thank you.

RATING: ★★★

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR runs at London’s Barbican Theatre to 24th August 2019.

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