On leaving the Oxford Playhouse tonight, I overheard one theatregoer say to another, ‘Well, that was the worst thing I have seen them do.’ Now Jesus Christ Superstar is a musical that has always elicited strong reactions but was this a reasonable summary of the production by Oxford Operatic?
I would have to say no. However it is not the best version of this iconic show you will encounter.
Let us start with some positives. Duncan Blagrove makes an impressive attempt at the fiendishly difficult role of Judas. He brings a strong voice together with some anguished acting and, for me, steals the show from the solid Jesus of David Staines. Two years ago, Staines impressed me with a stand-out performance of The Russian in Chess. Here, he seems somewhat underpowered vocally throughout. There are some excellent moments but too often he seems overwhelmed by the task of portraying Christ on stage.
He is not helped by the placement of the interval. Director Dave Crewe has chosen to end the first act after ‘Gethsamane’ – rather than after earlier meeting between Judas and the Priests. This does mean the act ends with an emotional high but the decision to leave Christ centre stage praying and then bringing the houselights up means that the audience are unsure as to whether there is an interval or something else is about to happen. It also traps the performer on stage throughout the interval. In a role as demanding as Christ, it is vital to grab whatever breaks you can to allow the voice to recover. Staines is not allowed that luxury – and thus starts the second act vocally tired. A big mistake to my mind.
Crewe handles the large cast of 67 well. As ever with this particular company there are too many people on stage but fortunately he deals well with the necessary traffic control of getting them all on and off stage without unnecessary delay.
Technically there are major issues with the sound balance in the theatre. It is a heavily scored piece and this results in an over-loud band overshadowing the efforts of the singers. There are also a number of moments where the lights and the actors are somewhat out of sync – faces often being left in darkness. These are things that hopefully will improve as the week continues but ought to have been sorted before opening night.
Is this the worst thing Oxford Operatic have done? No. Is it their best? Probably not. It is a decent attempt at a difficult show with some good performances.