Jesus Christ… What Was That?

Adam Wollerton

“Did you hear Tim Minchin is in Jesus Christ Superstar?” “Yes! And Mel C from Spice Girls!” – The phrases you were bound to hear from the lips of any eager fan of Mr Webber, or even the couch-friendly spectators of ITV’s Superstar, since the opening of the new adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar at the O2 in 2012.

There is an electric atmosphere in the opening scene, which drew on the London riots of 2011 for inspiration, with brilliant choreography by Kevan Allen. This sets a tone for the entrance of Jesus and his followers, painting them as a band of heroes similar to that seen in the bohemians of We Will Rock You. It definitely sets a high bar for the rest of the show.

With the increasing struggles faced by producers, directors and theatre houses when launching a new show, it has become rather ‘traditional’ to draft in the latest celebrities to perform a ‘bums on seats’ miracle. Take Sheridan Smith, in Legally Blonde, bringing audiences from her stints on Two Pints and Gavin and Stacey, welcoming fans to the theatre for perhaps the first time. Or maybe Amanda Holden, holding the hands of those Britain’s Got Talent supporters (because let’s face it, what else has she done) from the sofa to the stalls of Shrek. Sometimes, however, this can come at the cost of actual talent with recent graduates from London Drama Schools, or established theatrical performers often overlooked.

Jesus Christ Superstar is no different. Yet, like Mr Christ himself, this show is brought to life by an unseen blessing – Mr Tim Minchin. The well-known comedian is outstanding in this latest staging of the iconic show. However, ‘celebrity’ Mel C struggles to achieve similar genius. Although the styling made her look the part (if not a little Meat from We Will Rock You), her acting credibility and voice lacks the musical theatre training that is needed to really capture character through the songs.

An emotionally dry performance of ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ exposes her weakness in acting as she takes to the stage for her character’s arguably biggest and most well-known song. It is evident that her career as a Spice Girl has definitely taught her some less desirable tactics on the stage front with tricks such as a lot of closed-eye ponderous singing, the occasional and beautifully generic ‘desperation’ air-grab, topped off with the sigh of breath at the end of every… single… sentence… *breath*. Perhaps some celebrities shouldn’t dabble in the arts…

And so we turn to the lead actor himself, Ben Forster, the ITV Superstar winner as picked by the viewing public. Forster certainly has a trained aspect to his voice; however, he does not quite measure up to the standard set by his predecessors as he takes on the phenomenal ‘Gethsemane’.

His performance for the majority of the song is standard and watchable, but when the big note hits, requiring a trained theatrical-cross-rock voice, he seemingly flops. His falsetto talent is admirable but is lacking in power or confidence… imagine the sound of a balloon, just blown up, that you let deflate and fly around the room… yes, that’s the feeling that strikes half way through this epic song. It is in no doubt that Forster is a talented performer, but perhaps the role of Jesus has come a little soon for him.

The appearance of another celebrity, who receives the warmest welcome out of the whole cast, adds some humour to the show – this is of course the introduction of Chris Moyles as King Herod. These parts that are played for humour, (somewhat reminiscent of Matt Lucas in Les Misérables) are always a crowd favourite. Chris Moyles’ interpretation of King Herod is certainly no exception, creating many a giggle and cheer from the audience.

After seeing the 25th Anniversary performance of Les Misérables at the O2 Arena in 2010, I went to view Jesus Christ Superstar knowing what a talented cast was capable of creating in this magnificent theatrical space. Superstar, although boasting a brilliantly original and fresh approach with some credible performances, certainly fell second best to Les Mis. If you haven’t yet seen the show, it is worth attending just for Tim Minchin’s performance as Judas and for the talent and imagination of the creative team behind this stunning production. Jesus Christ Superstar is touring across the country throughout 2013, and the O2 Arena performance is available now on DVD.
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About Adam Wollerton

Adam is a Writer and Director of Off-West End and West End Theatre Productions. He is also the Co-Founder of Curious Tales Theatre Company and is the author of LoveStuck: A New Musical.