Coverage of EUSOG’s recent ‘woke’ production of Jesus Christ Superstar made it to Fox News, the Daily Mail, and GB News, so ticket-buyers would be forgiven for expecting something controversial as they sit to watch it in Church Hill Theatre. The ‘gender-blind’ casting chosen by the production team (headed by Lew Forman), however, only adds to the brilliance of the show, as it allows extremely talented cast members to shine in roles to which they are especially suited. Partly due to the lack of lyrical changes, the gender of the actors honestly plays very little part in the experience of the story, and why would it? Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera reimagines the New Testament account of Jesus Christ’s last days on Earth, a story so well-known, and interpreted in so many ways, that it is an ideal choice to try out gender-blind casting, in which the role goes to the auditionee who performs it best, regardless of sex or gender.
We open to a neutrals-clad ensemble who effectively convey their adoration for Christ (Roza Stevenson), tripping over themselves to get the attention of their leader, who is gracefully draped in loose white fabric. This is only the first of many clever scenes using the ensemble cast to full effect; throughout, Izzy Ponsford’s direction and Emily Bealer’s choreography largely succeed in summoning the feeling of packed hordes. Christ’s followers are rendered somewhat cult-like, although this is not completely reflected in Jacob Henney’s spare set design, with posters and flags evoking protest movements of the present day instead.
Judas has some opinions about these crowds in the opening song ‘Heaven on Their Minds’, but unfortunately we in the audience are not privy to these opinions, as the – unquestionably gorgeous – orchestration from the pit engulfs Hollie Avery’s words to the point of unintelligibility. Only Stevenson’s satisfyingly clear diction survives this onslaught. However, we can tell Judas is at odds with the crowd, because costume designer Claudia Alibrando has put Avery in all-black; subtlety is not key here, but then would it serve any purpose in a show about the lead figure in the world’s largest religion?
The sound issues unfortunately do not end there, as microphone mishaps plague the first act. The cast take the distorted shrieking in their stride with solid professionalism, and luckily none of the several devastatingly quiet heart-rending moments are interrupted, but the technical hitches are still unwelcome as they break through this production’s greatest strength: its ability to completely immerse the audience. The cast embody their characters so well that the final bows are somewhat disorienting. In a particularly engrossing scene, Gordon Stackhouse’s superb acting shines when his character Pontius Pilate struggles with Christ’s reticence, Pilate’s frustration and reluctance conveyed with sophistication.
Avery, for her part, is easily enough of a superstar for a bare stage, leaving us awestruck each time Judas appears, but she is well-supported by Tom Beazley’s lighting design at the very end of the first act, as the character’s vocals shift with ease from righteous powerhouse to softly conflicted. Later, Hannah McGregor’s beautiful performance as the apostle guilty for denying his relationship with Christ in ‘Peter’s Denial’ is wonderfully understated. The opposite is true of King Herod, played by Joey Lawson. ‘King Herod’s Song’ is always a crowd-pleaser, but Lawson doesn’t use that excuse to be careless, wholeheartedly delivering as the camp client king. It is performances like this that the show needs a few more of, as it is only when the cast — especially those delivering the smaller parts — don’t appear to have their whole heart in it that EUSOG’s Jesus Christ Superstar falters; perhaps it is deemed inappropriate to enjoy your time on stage with a plot so concerned with death, but, along with the aforementioned technical issues, this is the main element stopping the production from being truly excellent.
Image ‘Jesus, Judas, Mary’ by Andrew Perry provided via Press Release.