Barbican Theatre (venue)
09 July 2019 (released)
Although conceived as a stage-show, Superstar entered the world as a double record album sung by rock musicians of the day (Ian Gilan of Deep Purple was Jesus) so the idea of staging this musical as a gig with the band visible and all the solos sung with hand held microphones, often guitars slung around their necks makes perfect sense. For those of us that grew up on this 1970’s show, this concept from director Timothy Sheader is also the spring-board for an invigorating and fresh revival with an exceptionally coherent and stylish design.
The show opens with an intensity I’ve not experienced in the theatre for a long time. As the lights dim, the auditorium is invaded by the grey, hooded cast who scuttle in through the Barbican side doors before congregating on the stage, a swarm of pulsating bodies that surge into the sound of ‘Heaven on my Mind’ (‘My mind is clearer now…) sung by Ricardo Alfonso as Judas. And that man can sing!
From heavy rock to heavenly choral notes, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score has never sounded better. The band are on raised platforms and visible for the many solos that punctuate a score of unfailing rhythmic and melodic intensity. Some of Tim Rice’s sharp lyrics are lost in the sheer volume of electric guitars but they emerge for the moments that count.
Sheader’s production started life at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, winning the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival and Evening Standard Award for Best Musical and whilst the outdoor scenes must have added another dimension set in the park, the claustrophobic intensity of the Barbican space holds in own power. There are many stunning visual as well as vocal moments, from the chorus freezing in position reminiscent of the disciples in Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ or Judas going to his death with hands stained silver, having dipped them in the casket of blood money for betraying Jesus. The lighting design is as intense as the sound, the searchlights in the final act like a stadium light show as well as the state seeking out Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.
This is a truly stylish, full throttle, re-imagining of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic. The design has such coherence, sometimes the individuality of the characters or settings are lost. However Timothy Sheader’s production only serves to highlight the extraordinary originality of the music and the bold exploration of faith and fame which feels as relevant today as it did in 1970.