Tag Archives: Tim Rice

“Jesus Christ Superstar” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

It wasn’t the pandemic that scuppered my first effort to see this revival of Timothy Sheader’s award-winning production, but the British weather. A word about that trip, though, since the atmosphere was wonderful, even if torrential rain brought an early end to the evening. It just wouldn’t be summer without a trip to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and the weather was a comforting touch of normality.

More importantly, front-of-house staff get the first cheer here: kitted out in PPE, but always smizing, they were welcoming and excited, even while wearing a visor and taking a temperature. Getting back to the theatre is the important thing. And, even with the show’s billing as a concert, the chance to hear Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece is welcome – for Tim Rice’s excellent lyrics as much as the score. But that ‘concert’ description is modest. True, there’s no set for the show. And performers are careful to socially distance. But the idea of a fresh look at the Gospel story is present and powerful. And the manner in which current constraints have been used by Sheader, his cast and his choreographer Drew McOnie is brilliant. The production is far from a reduced experience.

From the moment when performers simultaneously take off face masks (to a cheer), the show is gripping. The use of microphones and cables as props, albeit an invention born from social distancing necessity, is effective. And McOnie’s work really comes into focus. Isolated movements, reflecting the emotions of whoever is singing, don’t just feel appropriate to our times – with the space around each performer, intensity is increased. There feels like more to look at and more appreciate than ever.

Jesus Christ Superstar focuses on characters’ immediate, personal relations to the story (including speculation as to Christ’s frame of mind with the marvellous number Gethsemane). This makes the acting in the roles – and Sheader’s direction of them – key. Declan Bennett’s Jesus is mercurial and complex, full of humanity, with a unique charisma. As all know, the show belongs to Judas, and a surprisingly sweet-sounding Ricardo Afonso explores circumstance and motivation in dynamic fashion. Current reviews already testify to the achievements of the cast. Their performances are a further aspect of the show that even the most simple of staging enhances rather than detracts from.

Until 27 September 2020

www.openairtheatre.com

“Jesus Christ Superstar” from The Shows Must Go On!

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s generous gift to theatre-goers confined through Covid-19 during the Easter weekend is, appropriately, the passion story. Retold with an exciting rock score and the brilliant lyrics of Tim Rice, it is one of Webber’s most adventurous endeavours, dating from 1970. This arena production from 2012, while not my favourite, is still a real treat.

The production is star-studded and had a TV competition behind it that led to the casting of Ben Forster in the title role. Mel C of the Spice Girls takes the part of Mary Magdalene and Tim Minchin, a personal hero, is Judas. The delivery is clear, nobody sounds unpleasant and they can all perform to big crowds – important given the settings for the tour – indeed, each gets better as the show progresses. But none of the leads is actors. None manages to get beyond their public personas. Minchin still even sports his trademark eye make-up, and the close-ups provided by a filmed performance highlight this shortcoming.

Things are much better with the Pharisees: Pete Gallagher and Gerard Bentall are strong. Best of all is Alexander Hanson’s very classy Pontius Pilate. All three not only sound great but bring depth to their roles. Hanson’s part during the 39 Lashes is a real study in how to hold a stage. These achievements are despite, rather than aided by, director Laurence Connor’s ideas for the show.

There’s a frisson at the start with a suggested connection between Jesus as a revolutionary figure and modern-day rioters, courtesy of filmed news footage. And it’s understandable that the Occupy movement looked like a godsend for someone seeking to do something different with the show. That the hippy vibes from the original can be given a contemporary spin is fair enough. But the idea isn’t thought through or performed with enough skill. While difficult to judge on screen, the choreography looks suspiciously like a work-out routine and the large ensemble appears drafted en masse from the same drama school.

Some of the ideas fail abysmally. Casting the Pharisees as vaguely Masonic makes no sense, likewise having the Temple as some kind of nightclub surely miss the point that both reflect established religion. Instances of social media seem misplaced (cue projected hashtags) and lots of mobile phones are used. Remember that one of Rice’s best lyrics points out, “Israel in 4BC had no mass communication”.

A scene from Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
Chris Moyles and Ben Foster

The insistent temptation to form a connection with the crowd should surely have been resisted when it comes to mainstream media, too. Connor has Herod as a game show host (a very uncomfortable performance from Chris Moyles) while it is the press that interrogates Jesus as a celebrity. Filmed as he falls, as if paparazzi provide a new station of the cross, Forster does well. But you don’t need to be a reporter to ask these questions – the media as the medium are not needed – they quite literally get in the way. The particular power of this musical is that it deals with spirituality so directly, and with such humanity. Connor ignores that strength to the show’s detriment.

Available on The Show Must Go On! youtube channel until 12 April 2020

Photos by Tristram Kenton

"Chess" at the English National Opera

Nobody can say that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba can’t write a song and their 1984 concept album-turned-musical is full of good numbers, a couple of which were big chart hits. Directed by Laurence Connor, this major revival boasts some wonderful performances. Tim Howar brings a powerful rock sound as the maverick chess master Freddie Trumper, Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke are both fantastic as the female leads, and there’s impressive work from Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal as the men behind the scenes at a chess tournament that pits the USA against the USSR. The star of the show, as the Russian player, Anatoly Sergievksy, who defects to the West, is undoubtedly Michael Ball. Giving an impressively understated performance while belting out the numbers shows a performer of upmost confidence and technical skill. Ball is the master here, even if this chess game isn’t quite worth playing.
With music for the orchestra, the main theme, played during matches, is beautiful but adds little tension to an already wafer-thin story. There just isn’t enough in Richard Nelson’s book to hold attention, despite the backdrop of the Cold War and machinations of the Russian delegation. Connor tries hard with a barrage of video screens that ultimately only prove distracting. But the biggest problem is the writing for many voices. The ENO’s own chorus adds prestige to the event, but they seem lost – underused and with Tim Rice’s lyrics barely audible. As chess travels the world (well, Merano and Bangkok), attempts to add local colour end up pretty risible and Stephen Mear’s choreography surprisingly lacklustre. It all has to rest on the love triangle between Anatoly and the women in his life. There are moments when the cast, especially Ball, make this work, but the whole piece feels so slim that it’s more like a game of draughts.
Until 2 June 2018
www.eno.org
Photos by

"Jesus Christ Superstar" at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Artistic Director Timothy Sheader scores tops marks yet again for his venue’s annual musical. Sheader has wowed with grown-up and demanding shows before, but in this production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s concept album/rock opera even the glitter is gritty. This abbreviated Passion of Christ could win converts with its charged staging of ‘The Flagellation’ alone.
Updates to the music are respectful, coming mostly from the vocals. The score feels fresh and the rock guitars aren’t just retained, they are revelled in. More startlingly contemporary is choreographer Drew McOnie’s work and the athleisure clothes from designer Tom Scutt. Jesus and the apostles aren’t hippies but hipsters. It makes sense. Flares, glitter, a glam-Rocky-Horror outfit for Peter Caulfield’s excellent Herod and Judas’ hands dripping in silver paint, show carefully colour-coded scenes. All aided by Lee Curran, whose lighting for the finale is breath taking.
Sheader emphasises community (those ‘Shoreditch’ touches have a point). This is a big cast and it encircles the auditorium before mounting the stage, grabbing microphones and playing around with the stands, cultivating the idea this being a concert. The performative angle provides insight into the piece. And such a commanding use of the ensemble adds emotion as those who followed Jesus quickly turn, to hound him, then demand his death.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR by Webber, , Lyrics - Tim Rice, Music - Andrew Lloyd Webber, Director - Timothy Sheader, Designer - Tom Scutt, Choreography - Drew McOnie, Lighting - Lee Curran, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London, UK, 2016, Credit - Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.com /
There are as many superstars on stage as you could pray for. Anoushka Lucas is an excellent Mary, making the most of her show-stopping number. Tyrone Huntley (above) is a faultless Judas, with a soaring range and tremendous power. As the lead, Declan Bennett may strike you as lacking charisma – his Christ is introspective – but when power is called for Bennett delivers and his acting is astonishingly focused. Moments when it is difficult to hear what Bennett is singing are an especial pity, given that these are Tim Rice’s best lyrics. It’s testament to the strength of the production that a normally fatal flaw does little to diminish the power of this revelatory show.
Until 27 August 2016
www.openairtheatre.com
Photos by Johan Persson

"Aladdin" at the Prince Edward Theatre

Nobody does family entertainment like Disney. As this latest transfer from Broadway illustrates, their franchises cover all bases for a hit. Theatre is always a gamble, but it’s a safe bet that Aladdin will reap dividends, and someone has clearly put a great deal of money on it. With its many neon-coloured costumes and intricate sets (brilliant work by Gregg Barnes and Bob Crowley), this is a sumptuous night out. And that’s not to mention the magic carpet – with this budget they might have paid for a real one.
Adapted from the 1992 animation, Chad Beguelin’s book is a masterclass in moving movie to stage. It’s what people want and the show does exactly what it says on the tin lamp. Maybe it’s churlish (or naïve) but could they have been more adventurous? If I had one wish the film’s romantic theme, A Whole New World, would have been ditched despite its Oscar. It’s an uncharacteristically weak song from the impressive Alan Menken, who wrote the music here, working with Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin on lyrics.

 Jade Ewen and Dean John-Wilson
Jade Ewen and Dean John-Wilson

The additional songs are good and, as they were cut from the original film, they fit well. The first couple of numbers are best, carefully fleshing out the main characters. Dean John-Wilson cuts a dash in the lead (although if you’ve heard his magnificent voice before you might feel he is underused) and Jade Ewen is a charming Princess Jasmine. Combine the strong performances and their opening numbers and the two leads escape from being cartoon characters. Other tunes are catchy, and clever, if functional rather than magical.
With Casey Nicholaw’s ruthlessly efficient direction and choreography there’s little time to pick holes. A breakneck pace defies boredom and there’s plenty of humour as well. The role of Aladdin’s chums, embraced by Nathan Amzi, Stephen Rahman- Hughes and Rachid Sabitri, is a good case in point: their number is good and the staging so exaggerated it might be better suited to a cartoon. But the whole thing is so invigorating, with the addition of some food-based puns, it takes your breath away.
Trevor Dion Nicholas
Trevor Dion Nicholas

Aladdin’s secret weapon is, of course, the Genie. It’s the same for this show. Travelling with the production is Trevor Dion Nicholas, a real high value pro: commanding the stage, directing the fun and guiding the pieces wry edge. Gleefully telling us when his “big production number” is coming up and pointing out “we don’t have time for self discovery”, Nicholas is the proverbial dream. Such a strong theatrical performance fulfils my wish for the show. Bravo.
Booking until 11 February 2017
www.aladdinthemusical.co.uk
Photos by Deen van Meer © Disney

"From Here To Eternity" at the Shaftesbury Theatre

From Here To Eternity – The Musical opened this week at the Shaftesbury Theatre. The story of military lives and loves, based on James Jones’ novel, is set on the eve of Pearl Harbour. Famous because of the multiple Oscar winning film from 1953, this version is grittier than anything Hollywood could have produced that year. It’s a grown up affair, reminding us that musicals can deal with adult themes and complicated passions and crediting its audience with intelligence – and all the better for that.
The book by Bill Oakes and lyrics by the old maestro Tim Rice catch the attention. There’s no shying away from sex here, as First Sergeant Milt Warden starts a sea-soaked affair with his Captain’s wife Karen, while Private Robert E Lee Prewitt falls in love with a prostitute while battling with pressure from his comrades to return to the boxing ring, where he once blinded a man. There’s a lot going on. The language and violence of the soldiers, bored while waiting for war, has an authentic brutality.
A bold approach to the story is backed up by music from Stuart Brayson, who makes a startling West End debut. Drawing on a variety of styles, that nearly all hit home, this is an accomplished score and highly entertaining. Combined with Rice’s lyrics, there are several fine examples of characterisation. Choreographer Javier De Frutos works marvels with some adventurous dancing that shows off the strength of the male ensemble.
Tamara Harvey directs, dealing effectively with the exciting plot and providing time for the cast’s acting skills. The female characters, a frustrated wife and tart with a heart, are less well served than their love interests. But Rebecca Thornhill and Siubhan Harrison match the leading, male, roles in skill. Robert Lonsdale takes charge, giving a stirring performance as the independent Private Prewitt, while Darius Campbell sounds fantastic as Warden.
There is no shortage of achievements here, not least a satisfying cynicism and a look at big themes that have you itching to go back to the source material. An impressively dark tale, trying hard to be unsentimental and ending with a twist I thought brave – it can’t just be the downbeat subject matter that makes you leave slightly uninspired. A shame since few opportunities to impress are lost – the show just lacks that final spark. It’s a brave critic that offers predictions: stranger musicals than this one have gone on to success and some with fewer merits. I doubt From Here to Eternity will run forever, but it has enough going for it to hold its head high.
Booking until 26 April 2014
Written 24 October 2013 for The London Magazine