Jesus Christ Superstar, York Musical Theatre Company, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, tomorrow. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
REJECTED as a theatre show, Jesus Christ Superstar began life as that very 1970s’ thing, a rock concept album, or double album to be precise.
The year was 1970; Tim Rice was 25, Andrew Lloyd Webber, 21. By 1972, it had resurrected miraculously as a rock opera, so successfully that it played the West End for eight years initially.
Paul Laidlaw’s glorious new revival in York could not be more Seventies in spirit: hippie hair; kaftans; flared jeans; Bjorn Borg headbands; big beards; cop-show moustaches. Only the patchouli oil and stinky Afghan coats are missing, and no-one misses them.
The dawn of Advent might seem the wrong time to tell the story of the last seven days of Jesus Christ’s life, as seen through Judas’s burning eyes, but in fact its impact is all the greater before thoughts turn towards celebrating the innocent child’s arrival.
John Whitney has long cherished his dream role of Jesus, through his days of studying musical theatre at York St John University and growing a tribute beard. Now, at 28, the Middlesbrough-born actor realises that dream, with York Musical Theatre Company as his “new source to get his awesome musicals fix,” he says in the programme, coming over all retro Seventies.
Through a mutual connection, your reviewer had been hearing of what a powerhouse voice Whitney had. He was right. Wow! The new Whitney sings with a stunning range, sensitivity, emotion, drama, soul, and did he hit that famous Everest-high top note in I Only Want To Say (Gethsemane)? Of course, he did.
He was but one of many superb casting decisions by Laidlaw. Liverpudlian Chris Mooney is making his YMTC debut as the traitorous Judas, the narrator’s role, standing out from his fellow disciples with cropped hair and autumnal, military colours, his manner as intense and deceiving as Shakespeare’s Iago. His singing voice is full of fire and angst, but sometimes tender too, although he needs to work on the clarity of his diction in moments of heightened vocal stress.
Marlena Kellie, a jazz singer with appearances at Ronnie Scott’s and Pride to her name, makes I Don’t Know How To Love Him sound freshly minted, heartbreaking anew.
More than a decade after his appearance in York Light’s chorus line for this musical, Peter Wookie has his YMTC bow as an austere Pilate, and he is another to make a heavyweight impact, both with his voice and imposing physicality.
Jesus Christ Superstar, like Lloyd Webber and Rice’s fellow fledgling work Joseph And The Technicolor Dreamcoat, loves to show off myriad song styles, whether a rock anthem, a ballad, or a slice of Weimar cabaret in King Herod’s Song (a twinkling, camp John Haigh and his dancing ladies in red, contrasting with the men in black representing authority around him).
For this well paced sung-through musical, musical director John Atkin has a superb band under his command, wherein Paul McArthur and Neil Morgan’s guitars particularly shine out, while Laidlaw’s ensemble more than play their part too. Simon Spencer’s set and especially his lighting hit the mark too.
There is something of a Nativity play, Elvis Vegas show or even Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert about Jesus Christ Superstar, with its hip “Hey JC” lingo, but at the same time Laidlaw’s production wholly captures its deeper, darker aspects, played out on a bare scaffolding set provided by Brian Farrell Scaffolding. Namely, that it is a psychological study of a man alone, or rather two men alone: Jesus, on his pre-ordained journey to the cross, and Judas Iscariot, his betrayer, whose name has been dirt ever since.
This makes both their death scenes – spoiler alert! – devastating, albeit in their different ways. The solemn finale, no song, no music, only Jesus’s final words on the cross, reduces one and all to tears as the curtain falls. Oh, and that’s why it is apt to stage this musical now, when eyes are on a mendacious General Election, full of ill will and false prophets, and the Christmas tat commercials are starting to irritate already. Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus Christ Supershow.