Philo's Jesus Christ Superstar at Erindale Theatre: Energetic production of a questioning rock opera

Jesus Christ Superstar. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed by Jim McMullen. Musical director Casey White. Canberra Philharmonic Society. Erindale Theatre. Until March 24. Bookings 6257 1950 or

Jesus (Grant Pegg, centre) and the apostles at the Last Supper in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Photo: Ross Gould

Reviewer: Alanna Maclean.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a curious piece out of the early 1970s. It's a rock opera about the last days of Jesus (Grant Pegg) and it's his doubts that are set against those of Judas (Will Huang) and Mary Magdalene (Charlotte Gearside). There's no spoken dialogue; it's all about the songs.

And it's also about a questioning of the story. The miracles are less important than the man in this version. There's an echo of Dennis Potter's 1969 Son of Man, a TV play which sets up a bleaker view of Jesus than this musical but may very well have been an influence.

Canberra Philharmonic's production goes at it all with great energy but is in danger of blurring the subtleties. It might also be in danger of driving out the audience by an overuse of smoke and by a sound set-up that struggles to allow the performers clarity of word.

However, it has Pegg's thoughtfully touching Jesus at the centre and a strong and well sung Mary Magdalene in Charlotte Gearside. Huang as Judas works a little too hard but the doubts and questioning do come through and the all-singing all-dancing post-suicide return to haunt Jesus is sardonically upbeat.

Ian Croker is a cold Pontius Pilate, Patrick Galen-Mules makes a touching disciple Peter and Paul Sweeney is suitably over the top in King Herod's big production number.

Croker and director Jim McMullen have come up with an impressively flexible set design with a complex multi-level central revolve that is very well used by the large cast. Phil Goodwin's lighting design repeatedly further transforms the mood of the space and the essential follow spot operators are spot on in their picking up of soloists' faces.

Courtney Whitcombe with Karen Gillingham and Gearside provide stylish choreography, especially in the King Herod number. And Casey White's pit orchestra is the necessary and well-played underpinning of the show.

Chelsea de Raay's costumes range from the Dr Who Time Lord style for the priests, complete with glow-in-the-dark hoods and long velvet robes, to the much more understated browns and blacks and Doc Martens for the crowd. In between there are lots of sequins for the more raunchy numbers and, of course, for King Herod.

In fact it is the crowd that becomes the pulse of the show, initially very much on the side of Jesus. The transformation to a mob that can only cry out for his death is chilling and a powerful counterpoint to Pegg's sensitive portrayal of Jesus in despair. There is no resurrection in this modern take on the story.

So if the smoke can be cut back and the sound sharpened up it might very well be worth a trip to Erindale to revisit this questioning version of the Jesus story.

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