Jesus Christ Superstar

Jan 25 2023 | By More

★★★☆☆   Full blast

Church Hill Theatre: Tue 24 – Sat 28 jan 2023
Review by Thom Dibdin

There is one big sing on offer up at the Church Hill Theatre this week, and two big pairs of lungs which are equal to the task in the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera is far more demanding than it would first appear, particularly for a musical theatre company to find two performers who have the vocal strength to take on the roles of Judas and Jesus. Hollie Avery and Roza Stevenson certainly have that strength, even if opening night technical issues were not in their favour.

Roza Stevenson (Jesus). Pic: Jacob Howorth.

Jesus Christ Superstar follows the final week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, with the familiar set pieces from bible stories largely seen through the lens of his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, and set against the political backdrop of a grassroots Jewish uprising against the Roman colonialists and their collaborators in the Jewish religious elite.

Director Izzy Ponsford has a clear vision for the production, opening with a riotous assembly of protestors, complete with graffiti, posters and an ominous black-clad security detail who kettle the ensemble as the audiences point of view rotates through 180 degrees.

It all leads up to the appearance of the white-clad Roza Stevenson as Jesus, standing in a shaft of light at the top of gantry which runs above and across the rear of the stage.

properly uplifting

It is properly uplifting stuff, given a thrilling underscore from the pit during the Overture, which, in design terms, continues through the whole show. Indeed, the staging is a real feather in the cap for everyone involved in the visual design team, led by Claudia Alibrando on costumes, Tom Beazley on lighting and Jacob Henney on set design.

Hollie Avery (Judas). Pic: Jacob Howorth.

On the opening night’s showing, however, there is still a lot more work for the sound design team to get right. The balance between the pit and the stage is skewed completely in the pit’s favour and, in an effort to compensate, the principal’s microphones are turned up to eleven.

This is a big issue for the production. Hollie Avery, for example, can enunciate – when the volume drops in Act 2 her words are clear. But her words in the whole opening number, Heaven on Their Minds, are incomprehensible. Her vocal phrasing and power are perfect, but those words set up the plot and without them, it is just so much posturing.

Sound designer Martha Barrow needs to rein in the orchestra to a much greater degree, which would allow the whole production to show the subtlety and nuance that only a few of the less full-on numbers currently display.

small details

This apart, there is a lot to praise about the whole piece. The whole ensemble are consistently on form, whether interpreting Emily Bealer’s energetic choreography, providing an off-stage backing chorus or an on-stage crowd. There are small details across the whole production which indicate that real thought has gone into it.

Gordan Stackhouse (Pilate) and Roza Stevenson (Jesus). Pic: Jacob Howorth.

The principals are equally strong. When not hampered by the same sound issues as Avery, Roza Stevenson is a strong and enlightening Jesus. They bring both their acting and their vocal chops to the stage, making any question of the gender-blind casting completely irrelevant.

Sofia Pricolo is an understanding Mary Magdalene whose interactions with Jesus are clear and who brings out the beauty and understatement of her big solo offering, I Don’t Know How To Love Him. Ruby Loftus, as Simon, delivers a great Simon Zealotes and engages well when called upon to do so.

powerful bass

It must be said that the “baddies” of the piece do rather better in the comprehension stakes. Theo Chevis has the necessary powerful bass for Caiaphas, with Kathleen Davie keeping the narrative flowing as his side-kick Annas.

Joey Lawson (Herod). Pic: Jacob Howorth.

Joey Lawson takes the show-stopping King Herod’s Song and makes it his own. Camped up to the nines, with bustier and electric blue eye makeup, he exudes decadence as he tap dances his way through the number.

In the role of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor in charge of Jesus’s trial and ultimately ordering their death sentence, Gordon Stackhouse gives a great feeling for the tribulations of a politician stuck between the reluctance of of the state ruler, Herod, and the zealotry of the religious leaders.

contemporary timeframe

Izzy Ponsford and her creative producer Lew Forman write in their introductory notes to the production that they have set it in a contemporary timeframe, with Jesus born in 1990. It’s a nice idea which, without detracting from the whole, is not immediately apparent from the staging.

If powerful voices turned up to the max and big tunes delivered at volume are your thing, then this is a perfect. But what ever your preferences, this is a strong staging of a modern classic.

Running time: Two hours and five minutes (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, 33 Morningside Road, EH10 4DR.
Tue 24 – Sat 28 Jan 2023.
Evenings: 7.30pm; Sat Mat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

The Cast and Crew of Jesus Christ Superstar. Pic: Jacob Howorth.


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