Willoughby Theatre Company’s new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar
Review by Holly Champion
Willoughby Theatre Company is known in Sydney for high-quality amateur/community productions, but director Stig Bell’s contemporary gothic reimagining of Lloyd Webber’s 1970 smash hit still astonishes with its professionalism. Every dollar of the sizeable budget is put to good use in the moody and clever set, glitzy rock-concert lighting and most particularly in the dozens of stylish steampunk-style costumes designed by Matthew Patteson and Kate Campbell-Westerway. Musical director Therese Doyle conducted the 12-piece band with precision and driving tempi that moved the story and the groovy rhythms along at an exciting pace. The steampunk concept intelligently updated the original hippie-counterculture theme to reflect a contemporary questioning of Christianity’s narrative and values.
But Jesus Christ Superstar ascends to heaven or flops to earth on the back of its cast: it demands a diverse contingent of strong young male singer-actors, especially for the yin/yang lead roles of Judas and Jesus. In this production, Jesus Christ is played and sung to perfection by handsome Filipino-Aussie tenor Dexter Villahermosa, in a welcome respite from the usual brigade of blonde, blue-eyed and bearded Jesuses. The cynic in me initially assumed that casting an Asian-Australian as Christ was motivated by political interests, but the first notes that dropped from Villahermosa’s lips put paid to that idea. Despite some microphone mishaps, Act II’s “Gesthemane” in particular was the emotional and vocal tour de force that I had hoped for. It confirmed Villahermosa as a musical theatre performer with star quality who really deserves to be immediately snapped up by a professional company.
Peter Meredith as Judas made an admirable effort with this notoriously difficult role, which involves a great deal of text and lies almost entirely above the tenor’s passagio. Famously portrayed by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice not as the traditional heartless traitor but as a conflicted anti-hero narrator figure who voices many of our own concerns, Judas to me is a role that demands a certain snaky fluidity and dark, brooding charisma that I felt was lacking a little here. Perhaps this would be addressed with more physical flexibility. Meredith certainly didn’t bore us with his characterisation, but he did seem a little stiff.
Or perhaps he just seemed stiff in contrast with the energetic and often alarmingly supple young dancers, whose flips, tumbles, backbends and high kicks were amazing to watch. The dancers were often joined by the rest of the ensemble in wonderfully interpreting Sarah Friedrich and Kathryn Harradine’s modern choreography, which blended vaudeville, Fosse and Broadway with moves from Dirty Dancing and pop video clips. In the King Herod scene, the gender-bending, corset-sporting dancers were so good that they almost—but not quite—upstaged Jonathon Holmes’s hilariously naughty portrayal of Herod as The Rocky Horror Show‘s Frank-n-furter.
The clever visual references continued: a da Vinci-esque Last Supper and the final scene’s glowing Baz Luhrmann-style crucifix rounded out a huge achievement by 17-year-old set designer Slade Blanch.
Other highlights included Gareth Davis as Pontius Pilate, weirdly radiating authority and humanity in an extravagant feathered and braided uniform; Lucy Hood as a sexy, sweet and vulnerable Mary Magdalene; and singer-songwriter Brad Jhaye as Caiaphas’s nasty adviser Annas. James Jonathon as Caiaphas found it a little difficult to reach the lowest of his basso profundo notes in this second-night performance, but he had power of timbre and characterisation despite his youth. To be sure, there were quite a few instances of questionable intonation from many of the minor characters, and one or two from the band, but in general the whole company performed far better than any community theatre company has a right to. In the band, David Russell and Richard Kerr’s solos on electric guitar rate a special mention for their soaring, exhilarating rock-star quality.
The cast, crew and creative team deservedly received a huge round of applause at the end of the evening. I overheard one patron saying earnestly afterwards that they had paid $200 last week to see Wicked, and that this was every bit as good. While I haven’t seen this particular iteration of Wicked, I wouldn’t quite go that far—with the exception of JC Superstar’s costumes and particularly its titular ‘superstar’, who really is at professional level. Nevertheless, it is a bargain at $50 or thereabouts, and Willoughby Theatre Co. can certainly claim to be one of the finest creators of community theatre in the country. I shall pounce on tickets for their production of Evita in May 2015. Four stars ****
WTC’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar is showing at the Chatwood Concourse theatre until October 26. Tickets available at: http://premier.ticketek.com.au/shows/show.aspx?sh=JESUSCHR14&v=TCN
Thanks to WTC president Tom Sweeney for providing photographs.