Jesus Christ Superstar and The Messiah and the biblical spur to genius

With Easter fast approaching it’s the time of the year when theatres stage the tale of Jesus Christ- his life, death and resurrection. In the past week I have seen two vastly different versions, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar tackled with impressive aplomb by Yeovil Amateur Operatic Society and Handel’s oratorio The Messiah given a beautiful semi-staged production by Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director Tom Morris and performed with staggering aplomb by the baroque English Chamber Orchestra and the haunting voices of the Erebus Ensemble.

What similarities can there be between these two works I can hear some ask. Well only that in telling a story about Christ, two behemoths of popular music in their times created their ultimate masterpieces. Lloyd Webbers take on the last days of the Messiah fills his score with screeching guitars and falsetto rock screams but also finds moments of grace and fragility within the bombast. There may be no better song in all of musical theatre then Judas’ ‘Heaven On Their Minds’ and though the show structurally struggles to ever top the issue that the best moment in the show occurs barely a minute into the work, well, what a problem to have. Meanwhile Handel’s work splits the biblical tale into three parts; the prophecies, the passion and the death and finally the acclimation of Christ to heaven. History tells us that this was performed on the BOV stage in the eighteenth century and it was unlikely to ever sound as beautiful as it does now, with the tingling sound of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ especially filling this glorious playhouse with aching grandeur.

Morris keeps it simple. His staging is unobtrusive and makes sure the music takes centre stage. A guest actor takes on the role of The Beloved each night. On press night Theatre Ad Infinitum’s artistic director Nir Paldi took on probably the easiest role he’s ever been asked to play, for a great majority he kicks back and stays down on a slab, before indulging in some foot washing, before being lifted as to the heavens late on. The four soloists Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Joshua Ellicott, Brindley Sherricott and Julia Doyle all make their mark, another high point of a highly polished minimalist take on a work that was first seen at the Bristol proms and makes Morris’ promise of accessible classical musical to the masses a reality.

Meanwhile YAOS have thrown their not inconsiderate amateur theatre resources at their production. You can positively smell the budget in Jeremy Tustin’s production.  From the sight of Christ being raised up upon the cross, to the gaudy Vegas of Herod’s world and the Michael Jackson pomp of the titular song, there is plenty of spectacle on display here, matched by performances remarkably high in a show that demands so much of its performers, Luke Whitchurch’s Judas wouldn’t leave you feeling short changed next time Kenwright’s version rolls around, while Stephen Robert’s Annas cold tenor gives the villain a terrifying demented edge. They are the standouts but only because you can imagine these performances on a professional stage. Across the board the performances are highly impressive.

So two works of high artistic merit depicting the conclusion of Christ on earth. Christmas may feel like the most important time in a theatres calendar, but there’s something about the Easter narrative that fits just as well. And finally a thought. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Handel’s well documented challenges in developing The Messiah? Now that’s a scenario to make a theatre fan salivate.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs at the Octagon Theatre until the 8th April

The Messiah runs at Bristol Old Vic until the 9th April.

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