Review: Jesus Christ Superstar, Riverside Theatres

With attention to detail, historical research and the assembling of a skilled company, this Jesus Christ Superstar is respectful, dramatic and musically excellent.
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Photo by Grant Leslie.

Jesus Christ Superstar comes with baggage, piled high on a donkey type-baggage. Nearly 50 years old, the music and theatrical legend seem to have always been with us.  How then, to create a production which honours the subject matter while meaningfully melding old and new audience expectations? 

Neil Gooding and Packemin Productions have considered the whole package here and brought to audiences a new way of seeing the show.  With attention to detail, historical research and the assembling of a skilled company, this Jesus Christ Superstar is respectful, dramatic and musically excellent, and completely thrilling to watch in a production that abuts ancient and modern.

Mary, Mother of Jesus, appears as the pounding overture from the 14 piece live orchestra wails across the audience with that unmistakeable electric guitar riff.  She is dressed in beige and sacred blue; and so it begins. 

This production grounds itself in an interrogation of the times.  The cast are dressed in parched brown tones with only an occasional splash of colour in a musty blue or green. Hit this rabble and throng with rock and roll lighting of exciting style and colours, place them on an aspirational, society-building grey scaffolding and rehearse their choreo to needle sharp quality and you have a bedrock on which the story can be told and made intimate.

Jesus is played by Joe Kalou in a bold choice of casting. He beams with love for those around him and approaches the doubt of the role with clear characterisation, he also handles the suffering in a delicate balance of body and belief. Kalou’s unique voice drops down to an almost spoken tone in places but rises to the high notes with a dynamic energy.  However, it needs to be said, that some audiences may find his vocal interpretation not to their liking but for commitment and chilling carry, his work leading to and around the crucifixion is excellent.

As written, though, this is show sandstorms around Judas, his motivations and despair and Toby Francis is spectacularly good. Riven and conflicted he brings a seething watcher to the stage and his singing is never short of excellent. He stalks and is bent low by his choices, placing Judas’s actions in an intelligent framework of brave and unassailable predestination.  Excellence all over, also, in Brittanie Shipway’s mesmerising performance as Mary. Clothed in the femaleness of dusty red, she tends and worries and protects and her bravura solo work is placed so carefully within the whole creation that the audience holds their breath with the power of her sung storytelling.

Photo by Grant Leslie.

Gooding has given a humanity and believability to every interaction on the stage and the relationships carry the audience to heart of greatness. This is an ensemble second to none in quality and commitment and the minor characters are each as stellar as the stars. Particularly brilliant is Gavin Brightwell as Pilate in a clipped, cynical interpretation with a wide mob-pleasing physicality. 

The orchestration and control from MD Peter Hayward brings drum heavy, electric guitar loudness modulated with discreet use of brass and string. The audio mix is of superior quality and the followspot work is first-rate. It is a technically dazzling show on every level.

When the finale of the production pulses with sacrifice, the lighting plot clashes dirty orange with a vivid pink and blue state … period and contemporary elements to thrill. For this Jesus Christ Superstar sets aside the burden of expectation to flash with textured humanity and shimmer with spirit and unflinching respect.

Rating: 4 ½ stars ★★★★☆
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR from Packemin Productions

Producer & Director: Neil Gooding
Musical Director: Peter Hayward
Choreographer: Cameron Mitchell
Set Designer: Neil Shotter
Costume Designer: Audrey Currie
Lighting Designer: Sean Clarke
Sound Designer: David Grigg
JUDAS: Toby Francis
JESUS: Joe Kalou
MARY: Brittanie Shipway
PILATE: Gavin Brightwell
HEROD: Simon Peppercorn
PETER: Joshua Ridge
CAIAPHAS: Haji Myrteza
ANNAS: Jenna Woolley

8-23 February 2019
Riverside Theatre, Parramatta

Judith Greenaway
About the Author
Judith grew up as a theatre brat with parents who were jobbing actors and singers. She has now retired from a lifetime of teaching and theatre work with companies small and large and spends evenings exploring the wealth of indie and professional theatre available in Sydney.