Jesus Christ Superstar

Birmingham Hippodrome


IT’S more than 40 years since I first saw this landmark rock opera and in this latest coming it is still a powerful piece, helped, of course, by a powerful story, the basis of the world’s largest religion.

It covers the dramatic and emotional final seven days of the life of Jesus. The chief priests saw him not as the Messiah but as a subversive rebel, a terrorist, threatening their religious domination; one of his disciples Judas was worried about the consequences of antagonising the priests or, worse, the occupying Romans; meanwhile amid the politics and plottingjesus, Jesus, already knowing his fate, quietly prepares for his death.

The close relationship between Judus and Jesus is a key element of the musical, without it the subsequent betrayal loses much of its value. We have to feel that Judas is battling conscience and inner demons to give up the man he loves.

Somehow though that chemistry is never quite there. Not that it is the fault of the actors. Australian musical theatre star Tim Rogers has a fine tenor voice and can turn it to rock star mode in an instant. He is suitably moody and concerned at the way he sees Jesus’s fame and the adulation of the crowds growing out of control.

Glenn Carter heads towards his fate as Jesus of Nazereth

His anguish at his betrayal of Jesus is palpable as is his subsequent anger at God for having used him to bring about the death of Christ on the cross

Glenn Carter as Jesus has an equally impressive tenor voice which shows a huge range and tonal quality in the moving Gethsemane as Jesus faces up to his death. Carter first played the role in 1996 in the West End, when he was a year younger than Christ was at his death, and he went on to play Jesus on Broadway and again on the last tour directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright, as is this one, in 2004, so he is very much at home and comfortable in the role, which perhaps dulls the edge.

But despite experience and fine voices the empathy between the two characters is missing and they appear as strangers much of the time.

Judas warns Jesus that things are getting out of control in Heaven on their minds but their first real clash is over Mary Magdalene and Jesus associating with a woman of “her profession” implying she was a prostitute, a common assumption but one which has no support from the Gospels incidentally.

Mary is played by X-factor finalist Rachel Adedeji and displays a well balanced voice which didn’t disappoint in Mary’s big number, the show’s hit song I don’t know how to love him. She has a clear, mellow voice and you can hear every word.

There is good support from Neil Moors as Caiaphas, the chief priest, who has a lovely rich, deep baritone, who, unfortunately had a mic malfunction in the critical scene were Judas is persuaded to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver which mean his words were not heard beyond the first few rows. 

Tim Rogers displays the anguish of Judas betraying Jesus to the priests

The story is so well known, among Christians at any rate, that the gist was apparent and Alistair Lee as No 2 priest Annas got the message across.

Johnathan Tweedie as Pontius Pilate gave a measured performance in fine voice as the Governor of Judea first passing on the problem to Herod, King of Galilee, and when the problem bounced back, pleading with Jesus to speak and save himself before washing his hands of the problem – with the water turning symbolically red – and leaving his fate up to the priests and a baying crowd.

The baying crowd who play the rest of the disciples, courtiers, priests, soldiers, assorted lepers and cripples, followers and the like add their support with good vocals and lively ensemble work

Tom Gilling, incidentally, produces the only light hearted moments with a camp, but not too camp, performance as Herod leading his equally gay courtiers trying to get Jesus to perform a few party trick miracles.

Paul Farrnsworth’s design is impressive with huge square stone pillars towering above each side of the stage covered in stone friezes, a pair of enormous doors at the back which double as Jerusalem’s city gates or some sort of opening to light and salvation.

A scaffolding walkway around the edges of the set coupled with a moveable pair of staircases gives some flexibility but the stage is dominated by a huge symbolic crown of thorns which lowered and raised, changing angles and lit dramatically by an excellent lighting design from Nick Richings.

Design and lighting came together again with the dramatic crucifixion, an unpleasant form of execution, and imagination and sound effects make it a brutal scene and rather uncomfortable to watch. A little more restraint and a quieter dying might have been more effective though. Silence has its own power on stage, particularly in the horror of a crucifixion. It would also add more weight to Jesus's cries to God. 

Rock musicals are all about the music though and musical director Tim Whiting and his seven piece band did a fine job in belting out Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, the third collaboration with Tim Rice, incidentally and the first commercial success. It still has the power and the glory. To 07-11-15

Roger Clarke



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