It can be presumed that my interest in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, stems solely from my interest in big musical numbers, which this show unquestionably contains with the musical classics “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, as performed by Mary, and Jesus’ “Gethsemane”. So, it goes without saying that I had my reservations about the musical portrayals of these numbers when arriving at GMTG’s version of this incredibly famous show, as directed by Fionnuala Hills. However, I was blown away by the powerful conviction applied to both the production behind the songs, the original musical arrangement and the vocal ability of the cast. A special commendation must go to the Musical Director of the show, Aron Sood, who lead impeccable ensemble harmonies throughout the production, and ensured each backing instrumental mimicked the themes and emotions displayed in each scene; from an opening guitar solo in the first scene to create a gospel and mysterious atmosphere to using drumsticks to convey a ticking countdown during ‘Judas Death’. Further recognition must be awarded to Matt Allison, who played the role of Pontius Pilate, and whose vocal abilities would not be out of place in a West-End setting. The most convincing character portrayal was that of Tom Noyes, who played the role of Judas in the production for the climatic scene of ‘Judas’ Death’, which was the standout scene of the entire show.
Upon arrival into the theatre (converted Deb Hall), we were exposed to a minimalistic set, with only the band being visible upstage on a raised platform, and two sets of steps being on show to the audience. As the performance began, there was an operatic gospel chorus being heard, with an array of white, blue and orange lighting (as designed by Maylin Billingham) to the ever-famous “Jesus Christ Superstar” overture. As a projected image of the crucifixion cross appears above Centre-stage, Noyes (as Judas) enters the stage in modern clothing, introducing the modernity of the production. As the scene develops with the entrance of the excessively sized ensemble, the characters of Jesus and Mary become apparent, though hidden amidst the almost chaotic staging of the chorus. This opening scene provided an energetic, and vocally sound beginning to the show, with harmonic overtones, with notes ranging from operatic to the extremely low and powerful tones of James Jackson.
The first Act continued to introduce themes and characters into the production, as we bore witness to the downfall of society, leading into a desperate scene of the poor and the violent. This particular scene included a raunchy dance break, which highlighted the tragic scenes that were occurring at this moment in time. The scene, which was preceded by Allison’s (Pontius Pilate) faultless and simplistic version of ‘Pilate’s Dream’, emphasised the power of Jesus in the show, as Geddy Stringer (Jesus) comfortably reached his higher vocal register to break up the events that were occurring during the scene. This left Stringer isolated on-stage under a spotlight and cloud of smoke, which assisted in an emotional conveyance of Jesus’ recognition that the ending of his time is imminent through the musical number ‘The Temple’. The ensemble re-entered the stage to close in on Jesus, where we saw Jesus’ vulnerability for the first time, as emphasised in the line “heal yourselves”, which Stringer emphasised with strong conviction. As Mary (Millie Harris) began to comfort Jesus, we were welcomed by the ever-familiar musical number “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, which Harris delivered with a mixture of softer and stronger tones, successfully highlighting the vast range of emotions being experienced by Mary. The first Act ended with the number “Blood Money”, when the sin of Judas became apparent, as a red bag of money was forcefully thrown at him to reward him for his information on the whereabouts of Jesus, before Noyes disappeared behind a cloud of smoke.
The second act of GMTG’s production could not have been better in a professional setting. The ensemble harmonies continued to be a major strength of the show, with strong vocals being displayed in the infamous ‘Gethsemane’ by Geddy Stringer as Jesus, and there was a dramatic increase in the tensions between Judas (Noyes) and Jesus (Stringer) throughout the act, making audience members extremely relieved to not experiencing the painful death stare of Tom Noyes! As the suspense continued, we were very much appreciative of the light relief brought about by ‘King Herod’s Song’, which had a strong comedic portrayal from Will Poyser as King Herod. The comical scene shared the 1920s setting of that in the film, again reinforcing the possible timeless direction of the show. The scene was somewhat of a necessity in the show, as the suspense continued to increase in the following scenes, where we were exposed to the deaths of Judas and Jesus.
Judas’ Death had the audience captivated on the edge of their seats, watching the formerly charismatic
Judas whimpering to the reprise of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. Noyes successfully conveyed the strong emotions of Judas during this scene, as reflected in his occasional vocal cracks, watering eyes and frantic pacing of the stage, which further emphasised the desperation of the scene, which left audience members in tears as Judas collapsed to the floor downstage to a hanging noose, which was visible upstage. The audience were, however, overjoyed to see the return of Judas in the climatic closing scene, featuring Jesus’ death, when Noyes returned looking particularly easy on the eye in a fantastically-tailored suit, leading the ensemble vocals, whilst getting his confidence back, reflected in his energetic dancing, and blasé attitude towards the downfall of Jesus.
Stringer dramatically and realistically expressed the extreme pain and defeat of Jesus during his torture and crucifixion, with the ensemble member Ed Shock leading the attack in a convincing emotionless demeanour. As the audience were exposed to Jesus’ bleeding whip wounds, by Stringer clutching onto the downstage-centre steps, we witnessed the deafening screams of Pontius Pilate (Matt Allison) to call for the execution of the protagonist. The crucifixion cross was then brought through the audience, with slight breaking of the fourth wall, as we witnessed the inevitable fate of Jesus through a climatic ending with Judas seeming unaffected by the crucifixion, as ensemble members were dressed in white, appearing angelic in Heaven. As Jesus was placed on the cross, bright white lights were directed from backstage down towards the audience, with Jesus’ silhouette visible behind a layer of smoke. The show concluded with Mary (Millie Harris), Peter (Zoë Farrow) and Simon (Daniel Gray) clutching onto the corpse of Jesus in an extremely powerful and sentimental close to an extremely emotional and powerful production.
Overall, GTMG exceeded my own personal expectations, and put on a show of a professional standard. I am very excited for their next production, and I urge people to go and witness the incredible talent of UoB students (Ps- I look forward to witnessing Matt Allison’s inevitable future on the West End).
The Director, Fionnuala Hills had this to say on the production process:
“The rehearsal process has been tough but thoroughly enjoyable. The cast members are all superb and have worked so hard and made rehearsals an absolute joy. I’ve always loved the show. It is so intelligently written and there is so much there for performers and so main thing I’ve wanted to focus on is the acting side of the show. It’s gritty; it’s not a typical jazz-hands musical. It’s something quite different for GMTG but I hope the audience love it as much as we’ve loved working on it.”