It's been a long five months since theatres closed their doors. Many of us feared we may not set foot in a theatre again this side of Christmas - but then a ray of light appeared with the news that outdoor performances could take place again with safety measures in place. The beautiful Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park had already postponed their entire 2020 season to next year but they wasted no time in putting together a special concert version of their award winning recent revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar.
Jesus Christ Superstar has never been one of my favourite shows, but I saw the Open Air Theatre production at the Barbican last year and fell in love with everything about it, so I didn't hesitate in booking tickets for this show.
A lot of people are wondering if theatre can go ahead with social distancing and whether it is safe to do so? Putting aside the logistics of if it is economically viable to run a show with reduced capacity, the staff at the venue were faultless in carrying out all their extra safety measures as we entered the venue. A socially distanced queue, the insistence everybody wore face masks at all times and a temperature check reassured us we were at no risk, and performances are safe to go ahead if theatres can afford to do so.
Of course, this is open air theatre in London so you are gambling with the Gods for the weather. They were not on our side this time. As soon as we set foot in the venue, the heavens were on our minds as they opened and rained down like a plague punishing the world for the Cats movie. We took our seats hoping for the best but the theatre started to resemble Titanic. I could have sworn I could even hear Celine Dion singing at one point. After a while we were told to evacuate the theatre and take cover in the foyer instead. As the time ticked away, my hope of seeing the show deteriorated. The staff kept us entertained in good humour with each announcements slightly funnier than the last "So... the rain's heavier than we thought. It should stop by 8pm" 8.05: "So... it hasn't stopped". Finally, the rain stopped and 80 minutes later than it should have begun, the glorious overture begun. After waiting five months to return to the theatre, I wasn't going to complain about another 80 minutes.
The three main roles were for this production were double cast to cater for the mammoth 9 performances each week. When the casting was initially announced, they said they would not reveal schedules in advance so you never knew who you were going to get as Jesus, Judas and Mary. For this performance, I got Tyrone Huntley who was nominated for an Olivier award for his role as Judas in the 2017 production, Declan Bennett as Jesus and Anoushka Lucas as Mary.
So let's talk about the cast. Gathering together a collection of some of the most talented people in the West end was always going to be a recipe for success, but the hunger they had to perform after a long few months away from the stage was clear. Every single person on that stage gave everything they had and were clearly loving every minute. Standouts included Cedric Neal who milked every moment of his song as Simon, David Thaxton as Pilate and Shaq Taylor stealing his brief time on stage as Herod. There wasn't a weak link in the ensemble with everybody ensuring the performance went off without a hitch.
Declan Bennett gave a fantastic performance as Jesus, delivering brilliant vocals on highlight 'Gethsemane' and showcasing his emotional depth in the complicated role. Anoushka Lucas delivered a powerful 'I Don't Know How To Love Him' after initially suffering a broken microphone in the opening number. The star of the show had to be Tyrone Huntley though - he has become one of my favourite musical theatre actors after impressing me with his incredible talent and versatility in shows such as Memphis, Dreamgirls and The View Upstairs. The sheer range of his voice was used to its full potential, culminating in an extra soulful 'Superstar'. His pain and confusion as he channelled Judas was a sight to behold and completely stole the show for me.
While this was billed as a concert, if you expected the cast to stand there and sing into microphones, you were at the wrong show. This was much closer to a full production with props and incredible choreography, changed to reflect social distancing. The changes made to reflect the state of the world were effective and took nothing away from the original. For example, rather than place the crown on Jesus' head, Judas brings him a box on stage instead for him to place it on his head himself.
An aspect of the show that completely blew me away was the lighting. In this situation, the 80 minute delay worked in our favour as it meant the sky was darker leaving the lights to be even more powerful than they would usually be. The use of lighting in particular during 'Gethsemane' gave me goosebumps, while the light shining on Jesus on the cross at the shows climax made a powerful image even more special.
The show wasn't without its flaws. A couple of cast members suffered microphone malfunctions - it does beg the question how that can be fixed quickly with social distancing in place and with cast not being able to share props. While the social distancing on stage didn't take much away from the show, it did make the moment where the cast recreate The Last Supper picture much less effective unfortunately.
After five months away, my first show back had to be amazing to make up for so many missed shows. Jesus Christ Superstar more than delivered. An amazing songbook performed by a ridiculously talented cast in a stunning venue complete with beautiful lighting made this a brilliant experience and one I would recommend everybody catch while they can.
Jesus Christ Superstar is running at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until September 27th. Some tickets are still available for future dates while you can now also buy tickets to watch the show on a screen outside the venue. http://openairtheatre.com/production/jesus-christ-superstar-the-concert