Theatre review: Jesus Christ Superstar was an electric & biblical performance in more ways than one (Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre until 23 February)

A weather report can be a clichéd way to open a review. But when it’s opening night of Jesus Christ Superstar and it has rained to biblical proportions, what do you do? You can sing, “Christ you know it ain’t easy” or tell people that Parramatta has been turned into a scene from Noah’s ark, even if that’s from the Old Testament. If anything, this atmosphere ramped up the tension and made everyone in the room all the more invested in this particular rock musical. Produced and directed by Neil Gooding for Packemin Productions, this incendiary show looks at seven days in the life of the son of God.

Long before The Book of Mormon courted controversy by mixing religion and musical theatre, there was an album made by a pair of young Englishmen. They were the guys now known as Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice. Some people thought the content might be too blasphemous for those with delicate sensibilities. But the songs were stellar and the rest is all history. The musical is now celebrated as a piece of art and it has been treading the professional and community theatre boards for almost 50 years. It’s easy to see why this show continues to strike such a chord with people. This is an emotionally-affecting piece with a killer and creative soundtrack to boot.

This show is seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot, the apostle who would betray Jesus. In this production, Toby Francis (High Fidelity) plays the character as a rather misunderstood and contradictory man. Judas begins his trajectory as one of Jesus’s followers but he then begins to question the Son of God’s motivations. Judas eventually betrays Jesus with a kiss. This marking identifies Christ and allows the group bearing weapons to arrest him.

Joe Kalou – who has appeared in Hi-5 and was recently in The Sydney Opera House’s In the Heights – plays a dreadlocked and charismatic Jesus. Christ has a quiet and introverted charm early on. We also discover his complex relationship with the strong and protective, Mary Magdalene (Brittanie Shipway (Funny Girl)). Famous biblical references dot the story, including: the miracle of turning water into wine, healing the infirm and kicking the shopkeepers out of the temple. (Those who did their religion homework may recognise some of these things).

Grant Leslie Photography – Jesus Christ Superstar

This production felt a lot more raw and gritty compared to Packemin’s previous ones but this could also be due to the content. This was not a happy-go-lucky children’s musical by any stretch. The stage design by Neil Shotter featured lots of metal and an industrial-feel; its unassuming nature drew your eyes to the centre of the stage. This was used to great effect as the tides of support shifted from utter devotion to abject hatred and judgment, for the saviour. This graphic imagery also made Judas’s own death quite disarming to watch; no mean feat for the villain of the piece.

The intense imagery and fabulous special effects for this show cannot be denied. Water was used in a symbolic way. A dove at one point appeared to fly away, and there were a series of small but effective illuminated crosses. The most confronting part of the production was – without question – the crucifixion. Jesus’s spirit was broken as he was stripped and forced to carry the huge cross. He was also bashed and bloodied by a series of lashes. Poor Kalou sent shivers down my spine as he was suspended on the cross wearing his painful crown of thorns. It served as a reminder of how cruel Christ’s death was. No surprises that the show was no raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens but gut-wrenching horror that was reportedly done in order to save our sins.

The songs in this production are incredibly emotional. There are vibrant ones that contrast to the themes of death and betrayal. A 14-piece orchestra delivered these with a rocking punch, especially the eponymous number. Other tunes like the gentle quiet of “Everything’s Alright” were so beautifully sad and a reminder of the darkness to come.

The three principal cast members gave excellent performances. Kalou and Shipway had a palpable chemistry. Roman emperor, Pontius Pilate (Gavin Brightwell) and King Herod (Simon Peppercorn) were ruthless. Jenna Woolley as Annas had a voice that was incredibly commanding. The members of the ensemble performed some inspired dance numbers choreographed by Cameron Mitchell. The cast – which numbered 70 in total – were an absolutely strong tour de force.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a classic rock opera that is still relevant. This is a soulful musical brimming with witty lyrics and fresh-sounding tunes. It lives up to its epic status and Packemin Productions filled some large shoes with their emotive rendering. Their Pro-am production was electric because this show was biblical in more ways than one, and because it transcended and endured. Long live Jesus Christ Superstar!

The reviewer attended opening night on February 8.

Photo credit: Grant Leslie.

Review score: four and a half stars (out of five).

Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta until 23 February. For more information and tickets please visit: https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/jcsuper/

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Natalie Salvo

My writing portfolio can be found at: https://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com/