It is a Tuesday evening, the first of six performances this week, and the Church Hill Theatre is a large venue to fill. Yet, row after row fills up, testifying to the high expectations: EUSOG performs the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, and those who have seen their previous productions expect a high standard. A twist this time: the production is cast entirely gender-neutral, for which even Lloyd Webber licensing was involved. Given that the musical follows the last weeks of Jesus’ life and his 12 apostles from Judas’ perspective, this is a bold and impactful idea.
At first, I was a bit disappointed. The time and place are that of an alternative 2023 where – according to creative producer Lew Forman and director Izzy Ponsford – the traditional patriarchal cis system is not the norm. However, this is not very well realised; the production hangs somewhere in the unidentifiable timelessness with the set representing the ancient world while the costumes are more evocative of the modern. The lighting was often distracting rather than supporting the scenery; floodlights that were supposed to show Judas’ state of mind, beaming from the stage into the audience, were often simply blinding.
Conceptually, the gender-neutral production works perfectly. The predominately female and non-binary actors perform the originally male roles with such naturality and ease that it is in no way objectionable – and thus powerfully shows that gender is interchangeable.
Staging, costumes, and dance were great. Altogether cohesive, with some nice diversions such as a two-person ballet contrasting full-cast dance numbers. The ensemble performances in particular were beautifully choreographed and acted, with some incredibly difficult harmonies that were hit perfectly.
Certain characters deserve special mention. Pontius Pilate was sung and acted brilliantly by Gordon Stackhouse, and Herod’s, sadly singular, performance enlivened the whole show with unfailing wit and tap dancing – for me, the number that redeemed what I missed in terms of the interplay between set, lighting and acting.
But now to the elephant in the room: what about the leads Judas and Jesus and how did the gender-neutral production work musically? It must be said, all the performers are great singers, some even incredible. This is especially true of Hollie Avery, portraying Judas. Her high notes were astonishingly powerful, her acting spot-on. Yet, from the first song, “Heaven on Their Minds”, it is evident that this music was written for tenors specifically and is therefore too low for an alto to carry the same impact. Equally, notes that are strenuously high for tenors, and deliberately used to give the music full force, are an effortless mid-range for altos. This is the same for Jesus, played by Roza Stevenson. They have a truly beautiful voice, but because the songs are sung at the lower end of the performer’s vocal range, the original power of the music is partly lost. It must be stressed, though, this is not the performers’ fault. They did amazingly with what they were given. Yet, the songs should have been transposed to preserve the music’s impact in a gender-neutral production.
In the first act, I have missed the moments where I forget that this is a student production and get lost in the show, completely captivated by the story. The second act, however, is more balanced and has some brilliant moments: Roza Stevenson’s acting is outstanding and carries the whole tragic impact of the show. Judas’s inner turmoil is wonderfully realised by Hollie Avery’s thoroughly convincing performance and the ensemble performs some truly energetic choreographies that are a joy to watch. I finally find one of those riveting moments in Jesus’ solo “Gethsemane”, a poignant and powerful song that Roza Stevenson hits perfectly with their excellent acting.
EUSOG’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar is a beautiful, interesting, and unique interpretation of the musical, performed by a cast bursting with insane talent. Although the gender-neutral cast sometimes undermines the music, it works wonderfully in the other aspects of the show, creating a version that is relevant and incisive today.
Image ‘Jesus & Mary’ photographed by Andrew Perry provided via press release