Jesus Christ Superstar @ The O2

Jesus Christ Superstar is finally being performed as a rock show, in arenas around the country, just like the good Lord (Webber that is) envisioned when he wrote it in 1970. And with a big budget, an all star cast and a Jesus voted for by the nation (take a bow Ben Forster) it has more potential than he ever could have dreamed of when the idea popped into his hippie haired head way back when. And considering that in 40 years modern dress has been done, done and done again, he’s also lucky to have the Occupy movement and the banking crisis to use as a fitting conceptual setting. The show opens with news footage of riots across the Eurozone, mixed with imaginary news reports discussing the more specific threat of Jesus and the 12; all played out on the large stage screen upon which the whole production is hugely dependent. #itsallverymodern

My excitement at seeing the production was largely about hearing the music I’ve known and loved most of my life, played out in a grand setting – and that didn’t disappoint. As the overture struck up, the music reverberated under every seat, and wailing guitars filled the room. Nothing weird or wacky, no drastically new arrangements – the music sounded just as good as ever. First up for judgement is Tim Minchin, whose brand of dreads and guy liner has clearly inspired the costumes of the rest of the cast. He puts a pretty basic spin on Judas – arguably the main man of the show. He hits all the right notes but his lyrics are occasionally blurred. ‘Heaven On Their Minds’ was great, but ‘Superstar’ – typically sung by Judas from the future – was confusing giving the modern setting of the show, and most of the lyrics would have been lost if you didn’t already know them. Mel C’s performance as Mary Magdalene wasn’t perfect either, with her distinctive pop vocals always on the edge of revealing her Liverpudlian accent, but largely she did a good job, and gave a striking visual. Most people will probably go home with her rendition of stand-out anthem ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ prominent in their heads.

Chris Moyles was well received by the audience, as I feared he would be… His performance as King Herod (which, for Jesus virgins, constitutes a 4 minute appearance on stage) was comfortably enough, just him being himself. He didn’t sing half as well as we’ve heard him sing on various novelty outings before, and his sarcastic tone managed to come across as bored and patronising. The ‘TV talk show-cum-talent show’ setting of this song would be tacky in any other context, but just about pulled through considering the overall concept behind this production. Asking the audience to vote for whether Jesus was a Lord or a Fraud was done with the collective tongue firmly in cheek.

Voted for by the viewers of ITV1’s ‘Superstar’ earlier this year, Ben Forster took the lead role, and pulled it off without a hitch. His rendition of showstopper ‘Gethsemane’ was my stand out moment of the night, and received the biggest ovation. It also has to be said that he was one of the few people on stage who remembered that this show is to be acted as well as sung – obviously upstaging the less experienced celebrities performing with him. Plus, I’m sure even the least musical audience members will have been impressed by his strong falsetto…since there isn’t really anyone out there now who doesn’t know what that is (thank you Saturday night talent shows).

However, I fear that the challenges posed by performing in an arena were not achieved by the creatives. The music sounded great – but in the grandeur of the O2 Arena, the production looked too small – too contained within the traditional stage. Having witnessed in-the-round spectacles and various stage settings in this same venue, put on by far lesser producers of pop shows, I had hoped for a bit more from Lloyd Webber here. Even the much-used video screen behind the stage was small in comparison to the size of the room. For some of the tickets to have cost £90, I fear this kind of theatrical experience wasn’t worth the money. Overall, that was my only real criticism here – but because it was the one thing I was expecting to differ from other JCS productions, it was a considerable let down. That said, listening to one of the greatest musical scores played live by a great band, headed by a perfect Jesus, as loud as you could possibly want – is only ever going to be a pleasure.

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Lady Gaga – The Born This Way Ball

As soon as the lights go down, Lady Gaga, completely covered by mask, armour and netting, rides out on stage on a mechanical horse – boom, there she is. And yet The Born This Way Ball is slow to start. As she is led around the catwalk she performs album filler ‘Road To Love (Highway Unicorn)’ which gets everyone singing along, in high anticipation of the Lady revealing herself. But as the song ends she indulges in a skit – Kill The Bitch – where she shoots dead a dancer, before performing album filler No.2 ‘Government Hooker’ – still covered up to the extent that we can’t see her face. Finally, after simulating giving birth, she erupts into ‘Born This Way’, and we’re off. For all its comparison to Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’ and criticism for failing to live up to her ‘anthem of a generation’ title, ‘Born This Way’ is a great song, and it ignites the crowd, now geared up for one night to be carefree about life, and serious about music.

For the next five songs however, Gaga insists on some sort of spoken ‘intermission’ in between each one, which keep the running of the show a bit stuttered, and leaves me a bit confused. Surely there’s supposed to be themes here – a concept – a reason for the songs being divided into ‘acts’, and yet I don’t understand it. I, who know as much of the shows of Jackson, Madonna, Bowie and Grace Jones as Gaga does, and who knows her own music inside out, am completely lost. So there’s little hope for many of the young teenagers and middle aged couples making up a surprising percentage of the crowd. Many of the tracks were short – a dozen songs only had a verse and two choruses performed – whilst many of the ‘monologues’ were more drawn out than most of the audience cared for. She took several minutes to declare “I am not an alien. I am not a woman. I am not a man”, before the bloke next to me shouted “What the fuck are you then?!” Yes, for anyone over 16, sometimes the Mother Monster garb can be a bit much.

‘Bad Romance’ and ‘Judas’ sound incredible in the surrounds of Twickenham Stadium. Launching into ‘Just Dance’ she declares, “Sometimes I think, what if I’d never written this song…none of this ever would have happened.” A dramatic thought, but probably very true. Gaga’s success was hard earned, but it was that one track, and that one cultural explosion that catapulted her into the electronic superstardom she inhabits today. But, for many people her greatest moments remain her isolated piano performances – in this show, that’s a keyboard stemming from the handlebars of the motorbike she is seated on. Her acoustic rendition of ‘Hair’ stirs the goosebumps alright, and we even get a sneak peak at ‘Princess Die’ – a song about (you guessed it) Princess Diana, which Gaga happily announces “will be controversial”. Telling us about how her record label feared she was aiming the Born This Way album to too much of a niche market, she looks around the stadium and declares “this is a pretty big fucking niche”. In these moments I’m always struck that Lady Gaga could pull off a whole show – probably in a more intimate venue – just at a piano. Indeed I’d be highly surprised if MTV Unplugged don’t come a-kocking within the next few years.

Gaga announced the show was running 30 minutes late, so she was going to “rock on before they pull the plug”. Unfortunately for us, rocking on meant skipping ‘Americano’, ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Alejandro’ – usually performed as part of the solid set between ‘Electric Chapel’ and ‘Paparazzi’. It seemed unfortunate that big tracks like these were sacrificed for so many album tracks – particularly the likes of ‘Electric Chapel’ and ‘Heavy Metal Lover’, or tracks that were never even released, like ‘Fashion Of His Love’. All is forgiven however, by the time we get to the grand finale and the Lady flexes her musical muscles by dropping ‘Paparazzi’, ‘The Edge Of Glory’ and ‘Marry The Night’ as if she just has too many goddam hits to get through. ‘The Edge Of Glory’ was a truly beautiful moment to send people packing home with, and it was the stand-out stadium anthem I imagined it would be as soon as I heard it.

As much as I felt the concept of the show was a bit misguided, and didn’t live up to the strong message of the album, anyone who would basque in the thought that she’s ‘running out of ideas’ is still wrong. Her recent 5 minute promotional film for her perfume ‘Fame’ is one of the best things she’s ever done, and her forthcoming third album ArtPop is already being raved about. There’s many more years left in the Haus of Gaga.

Setlist

 

Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)

Government Hooker

Born This Way

Black Jesus + Amen Fashion

Bloody Mary

Bad Romance

Judas

Fashion Of His Love

Just Dance

LoveGame

Telephone

Heavy Metal Lover

Bad Kids

Hair

Princess Die

Imagine (John Lennon Cover)

You and I

Electric Chapel

Paparazzi

Scheibe

ENCORE

The Edge Of Glory

Marry The Night