"What's the buzz?" sing the apostles in this frisky al fresco staging of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's first major hit. "Tell me what's a-happening." Well, the buzz is that Timothy Sheader, Artistic Director of Regent's Park OpenAir Theatre for almost a decade, has given us a rip-roaring production whose enjoyment factor goes through the (lack of) roof thanks to its outdoor setting. Even if, like me, you're lukewarm at best about Lloyd Webber musicals, it's hard not to be excited and even occasionally moved by the razzmatazz on offer against a backdrop of naturally dimming light, cooling air temperature, changing cloud formations, fresh air smells and swirling mists as the evening progresses.
I've heard some criticise Declan Bennett's Jesus for being weak compared to Tyrone Huntley's fine Judas. Huntley indeed gives a brilliant performance, but the reason Judas is a stronger character is down to Rice and Lloyd Webber, not Bennett's singing and acting, which are decent. Judas gets better songs, better scenes and is also allowed to run, jump and climb all over Tom Scutt's adventure playground of a set, comprised of rusty industrial girders. Jesus, meanwhile, can only sing his much more boring solos with one hand in his pocket and a gloomy expression on his face until well into the second half when what we've all been waiting for -- his crucifixion -- thrillingly materialises. Jesus Christ Superstar was originally a rock opera album before it made its debut as a drama in Pittsburgh then Broadway 45 years ago, and the problem is that Jesus is left kicking his sandalled heels with not much to do action-wise for most of his musical. For three-quarters of the two hours, it should really be called Judas Iscariot Superstar.
Judas and the huge ensemble cast dominate proceedings with their belted out rock anthems and slower numbers, excellently choreographed by Drew McOnie. They provide an over-abundance of action on stage, from camp line-dancing to kicking the life out of timid Jesus. Musical Director Tom Deering, helped by the sound engineers and live musicians, creates superb quality audio effects with all the excitement of a massive open-air rock gig. The cast's singing is generally faultless, but the best singer of the night by some distance is Anoushka Lucas, whose Mary has the voice of an angel.
Another scene-stealer in the second half is Peter Caulfield's gold-cape-and-hot pants Herod, whose flamboyant 'Herod's Song' had originally been written by Rice and Lloyd Webber for the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest (it was never selected). Gold glitter is used throughout this production quite ingeniously, especially when the mob is beating up Christ. They slap it violently on Bennett's bare and bloody torso as he writhes in agony under his crown of gold thorns. The contrast between his punched-up, extremely gory face and body and the gold glistening on his wounds in the twilight is wonderfully striking. I never knew that gold glitter could be quite so painful, or emotionally stirring.
As well as Judas, the other villains of the piece also impress - Cavin Cornwall's deep-voiced Caiaphas and his panto-esque priests, as well as David Thaxton's tattooed, grimacing Pilate. Much of the dress consists of greyish pantaloons and long baggy tops, attire which isn't rooted to any particular period in history. Together with Scutt's set of decaying ruins amid the real trees and other vegetation of Regent's Park, the resulting ageless vibe matches the fairly timeless quality of a show which has weathered well over the years.