This is the first time that I have see a Junior version of a major musical. Recent years have seen a whole raft of adaptations being made so that big musicals are more easily performed by young casts. It is understandable that the production team of this year's Stage Experience in Oxford chose to use one.
However after 2 hours in the theatre, was it a wise decision?
Given the quality of principal performers, I would have to say no. Guys and Dolls is not the most challenging of scores and I really feel that I was missing too much from show by the removal of some key songs and the reduction in others. I can understand reworking the harmonies so that they sit more appropriately for young voices but too much was lost (both in terms of music and dialogue) for my tastes.
None of this is the fault of the production – they had to work with the material with which they were presented. It is just a shame that the young cast were not given more of an opportunity to shine.
And there are some very strong young performers on the stage. Particularly impressive was the Nicely-Nicely Johnson of Adam Biggs who shows a nice comic sense as well has having a very pleasing voice. The central romatic pairings are well matched and all show great potential as performers.
Director Ed Blagrove has done his usual sterling job of controlling such a large cast (there are 135 young performers listed in the programme) – he has harnessed their energy and enthusiasm to good effect. The highlight of the production is probably the classic 'Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat' – some really crisp singing and choreography on display. Given that the show only had two weeks of rehearsal, this is a real credit to all involved.
I do wonder why they chose to perform the score with an orchestra of 2 keyboards, guitar and percussion. Whilst the tempi and general musical preparation are solid, the sound from the pit lacks the punch necessary to present Frank Loesser's score to best advantage. This again may have been all that was available for the Junior version – but it does not work well in a space as large as the New Theatre.
The audience reaction was incredibly enthusiastic – possibly too enthusiastic. My enjoyment of the performance was somewhat spoiled by the constant chatter from the delighted parents, family and friends of the cast on stage. It is to be regretted that people did not feel able to sit back and watch a show without having to comment every time they see their little darling on stage.
Given recent events round the country, Stage Experience is a great example of what can be achieved by giving young people a chance to work together on a worthwhile project. I applaud them all for their hard work and commitment to the production – I hope they have all thoroughly enjoyed the experience.