Joe Kalou as Jesus

Neil Gooding and Packemin Productions have brought a sensational version of this ‘rock opera’ to Parramatta Riverside Theatres. The strong, powerful production is fresh and vibrant and simultaneously full of great attention to detail and yes respectful too even though perhaps a touch controversial in a couple of aspects.         

We follow events through the last week of Jesus’ life and ministry, as based on the Gospels . This includes Palm Sunday, the Last Supper and ends with the events of Good Friday and Mary Magdalene sobbing over Jesus’ inert body. We also see a wonderful tableaux of the Apostles posed as if from medieval illuminated manuscripts at the end, preparing to spread The Word. But it is all viewed from Judas’ perspective.

The set design is mostly multi level scaffolding ,with a huge platform of steps also dominating the stage. Various banners are flown in to indicate assorted locale and the lighting design by Sean Clarke is glorious.

The show begins with that iconic sizzling guitar riff and we see the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus and throughout the overture we see Jesus growing up (as a young boy playing with his great friend Judas ) and some of the miracles – healing the blind and ill,  changing the water into wine at the wedding feast at Canna etc. (and at Jesus’ crucifixion, look out for Simon of Cyrene and St Veronica) .

The hidden orchestra under the direction of Peter Hayward give a scorching ,blistering rendition of the now classic score . Electric guitar with drums are countered with restrained string and brass. Cameron Mitchell‘s choreography was excellent with swirling,  seething crowds and for instance a punchy frieze like entrance for the Roman soldiers and slinky MTV like moves for Herod’s dancers

As Jesus,  dreadlocked Joe Kalou is magnificent. Symbolically he is dressed in white. We see him full of rock star charisma, radiating peace , love and compassion for the poor and sick. But at one point he is almost totally crushed and drained , worn out by the crowd’s incessant , overwhelming demands. He is righteously angry when dispersing with what have become the markets at the temple. He ranges from joyous and buoyant (eg the Palm Sunday procession) to anguished and despairing prayer( Gesthamene) . We see Jesus as an ordinary man deeply in love with Mary Magdalene yet also having an other worldly quality .

Mary Magdalene is tremendously played by Brittanie Shipway.In this production she wears a dark red dress. Shipway’s tender, affecting and arresting performance showcases her strong vocals, her performances of the well known I Don’t Know How To Love Him and Could We Start Again Please presented in a somewhat unusual country rock style.

Judas ( in a greeny/ blue outfit ) was brilliantly , sympathetically portrayed by Toby Francis as rather misunderstood . He is torn , anguished and doesn’t want to betray Jesus . Judas is shown at the start of the show as one of Jesus’ enthusiastic followers yet he slowly begins to query his long time friend’s motives and is driven by events that then spiral out of control. At the end he attempts to approach the Cross but staggers back …

Pilate , in purple with gold embroidery was flamboyantly portrayed by Gavin Brightwell as an oily, arrogant cynical villain, strutting and posing in movements reminiscent of Roman sculptures.

Simon Peppercorn is terrific as over the top , ostentatious Herod with his team of sycophantic dancers .

As gravelly voiced Caphias, Haji Myrteza was chilling and gave one goosebumps and mention must also be made of striking Jenna Woolley as Annas.

This was a very powerful, moving production technically dazzling with fine ensemble work and terrific leads.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR runs at Riverside Theatres Parramatta until the 23rd  February 2019