Jesus Christ Superstar

Date 9th April 2019
Society The East Cheshire Musical Theatre Company
Venue Romiley Forum
Type of Production Musical
Director Andrew Lee
Musical Director Ed Nurse
Choreographer Sally Hilliard

Report

Author: Kevin Proctor

A tale about the frailty of celebrity, the cost of betrayal and the unrelenting pressure of an inescapable destiny … this choice of show is certainly a tall order of biblical proportions for any company to present be them amateur or professional.

A tremendous rock oratorio covering the Passion and Crucifixion was a best-selling album and, in America, an arena concert phenomenon before it arrived first on Broadway in 1971 and, 1 year later, in the West End, where it ran for 8 years, the longest running musical ever – at that time.

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, or: The Bible according to Andrew Lloyd Webber, is celebrated for its rock score though Musical Director Ed Nurse and his musicians emit a relatively modest flavour during its heavier rock characteristics. I’m sure many fans of this title will be used to a much heavier, fuller and louder sound (be them on a recording or from many of the live staging’s across the globe over the last 4 decades). From the hidden upstage pit, we got a more conclusive delivery from the tranquil numbers which posed a reserved and moving tenderness – an area where Lloyd Webber himself receives greater accomplishments as a composer. The Overture to this show is one of my favourites and is one of Lloyd Webber’s best creations to date yet the vivacity of it with this particular airing was a significantly timid offering which fashioned a considerably wearisome introduction for a score that ought to punch us with a blast of classic rock. I appreciate that my grumbles here could be a result of the orchestra being reduced, tight purse strings are a prominent hurdle for many productions but for a show like ‘JCS’, offering more budget to the music would always be money well spent...so long as we can hear them all or you may as well be throwing your funds down the drain! I was taken aback when reading the programme to discover that there were 10 musicians in this orchestra, we certainly didn’t attain the substance of this quantity from out front. I also notice in the programme that no one had been credited for sound design or for operating the sound which could well be where this problem lies? Focusing on his skills as a seasoned Musical Director, Ed didn’t fail in keeping an admirable pace and ensured a smooth running and drive to the piece so should not feel too downhearted with the comments above, which are potentially not even his blunder despite being his burden.

A distinct concept was portrayed through the choice of costumes which communicated the thoughts behind the ideas and vision of Director, Andrew Lee, which pinpointed the telling of the story how he wanted it. This was a modern interpretation, not an uncommon preference for this show, though not much else about the production contributed to emanate this choice or illustrate a vision. In other words - the set, and how it was dressed, didn’t reflect any idea or concept conveying as a bit of an afterthought which dampened any impact of a strong statement. The set was a static raised platform draped in jagged blacks that didn’t match which was less than ordinary in terms of presentation, disinteresting to look at and offered little in terms of identity.

Any production of JCS would be incomplete without some vocal prowess and I’m delighted to report that both Jesus and Judas gave vocal performances of epic proportions, way beyond what anyone could expect on an amateur stage. Sam Bate did pose rather young to play Jesus but this is a minor gripe against the entire picture and any issues regarding his age were soon disregarded as the performance progressed, an impressive rendition of the great arioso soliloquy ‘Gethsemane’ passed the sternest test with flying, high tenor colours. It’s Alex Bingle’s Judas that we find ourselves latching onto in this rendering, as the shows pivotal character which is evidently told as his version of accounts.    

In most cases I prefer an underplayed interpretation to an exaggerated one, Holly McEleny’s Mary Magdalene was certainly the former. I did feel that more should have been uncovered through this alluring character. Mary Magdalene was not accepted amongst her community which wasn’t exhibited here, nor did we see how she reformed following her encounter with Jesus, missing the journey of this character resulted in her as no more than someone singing a couple of songs. This Mary was presentable and pretty and I’m not convinced she would’ve been… to begin with at least. Perhaps a street-wise, hard edged urchin in a modified version of this show?? Holly sang with competency, but the distress of the character was not revealed.

In what is regularly a show stealing moment, John Hilliard gives mounds of vaudevillian amusement as the stagey Herod complete with a supporting troupe of tappers. The ensemble heightens the crisis as a terrifically fierce mass of angry citizens with their protesting outrage creating an ideal and uneasy temperament.     

Thom Copestake’s vocals and acting ability unite and shone through to give a superb enactment as Pontius Pilate. His physical struggle between fulfilling the role that God has set out for him and the heavy weight of his own conscience is reflected with finesse and asserts Pilate’s role as the reluctant executioner who’s bullied into his swayed verdict by the mob. His ‘39 Lashes’ had the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. Excellent.   

Following the two deaths it would have been ideal to have complete darkness to prevent us being able to see the silhouettes of the characters we’ve just seen die scuffle off the stage which did break the anticipated mood that’d just been produced. The orchestra were silent during both of these instants so turning their lights off too shouldn’t have proved much of an issue here.  

Tailoring to suit the cast readily available, the choice to cast one of the disciples as a female reflects the current trend in professional revivals to gender switch key roles. Peter (or Peta in this production) is hardly a fundamental role to make a controversial effect from gender switching but nonetheless this was an astute and wholly in fashion decision even if as a result of slim pickings as opposed to a deliberate creative statement.

As this is an entirely sung through rock opera more could have been invested into the music / what we hear (either with more musicians or to invest in a good sound designer / operator to ensure we experience what’s being paid for).    

Despite some stumbling blocks, this ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ was a respectable attempt at a modern classic with some marvellous vocal performances. As stated at the top of this report, this show is no walk in the park for any company to plunge into so utmost kudos is to be given for tackling this piece head on.