Jesus Christ Superstar in Bristol

When we emigrated to America in 2013, one of the things I was excited about regarding our new location was the access to the theatre.  We were in the suburbs of Philadelphia which gets lots of touring productions of big shows in addition to its in-house theatrical companies and we are an easy day trip away from New York city.  Ultimately, however, we have not been able to take advantage to all of these theatrical opportunities.  The thing that has thwarted us is the cost.  Even for the touring productions, the ticket prices are too far out of our budget – especially since, of course, we need six tickets.  Some day I hope we can go as a family to take in a Broadway show but for now, pity though it may be, that is out of reach.

We, therefore, have been looking at local, regional theatre.  When we saw that the Bristol Riverside Theatre had a production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, we leaped at the chance to take the kids to see it.  Mr Pict and I both love musicals and, though I am not generally a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work, I have loved ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ since I was a child and would borrow the vinyl album from the library.  Mr Pict and I can both sing all of the lyrics of the rock opera from beginning to end, we know it so well.  In addition to wanting the kids to experience a musical they know well live on stage, it felt like a very relevant musical to take the kids to see given that one of its most prominent themes is political activism and fighting for an agenda you believe in in adverse, hostile circumstances.

We arrived early to pick up the tickets from the box office and that was ideal as it then afforded the kids the opportunity to burn off energy just outside the theatre before we took our seats.

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We were blown away by the production.  From the instant the actor playing Judas starting singing the first song, we knew it was going to be a great experience.  Every single actor was fantastic, giving dynamic, emotional performances and belting out songs with really strong voices.  As with the other productions of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ that I have seen live, the staging was minimalist but very effective.  Costuming was contemporary, with Jesus something of a hipster being followed by trendy believers with selfie sticks.  There were sly but not overbearing or disruptive allusions to current affairs to drive the thematic relevance of the musical.  For instance, Pilate was dressed in a business suit and was ready to play golf during his meeting with Jesus, a follower was wielding a “Make Jerusalem Great Again” placard, and Mary Magdalene removed her wig of straight, ombre hair to reveal her natural curls beneath.  It may not have been Broadway and may have been on stage in a local theatre but it was the by far the best production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ that I have ever seen – including a production in London’s West End.  Further, I would say it is among the strongest productions of any musical I have seen on stage and I have seen a good few.

So we may not be able to access Broadway shows for now but we will definitely continue to explore what is available for us to see as a family through regional theatres and we won’t feel short-changed in doing so.

Magical Music with the Philly Orchestra

On Saturday, we Picts headed into the city to see a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It was our first time seeing the Philly Orchestra and our first time inside the Kimmel Center.  For our four boys, it was their first ever time seeing a full orchestra live.  That, indeed, was our motivation for going: we try our best to expose them to all sorts of interesting experiences so that we can see what makes an impression, determine what interests and enjoyments might stick.

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What made this particular performance a great one to sample was that it was the orchestra’s Halloween show.  Not only did this mean that it was pitched at children in terms of content and length but it meant we could be assured that the audience would comprise families, making it a bit more relaxing as a first venture to see a full orchestra.  The Kimmel Center itself is a glorious space and we had a great view of the stage within the auditorium despite being in the cheap seats.  It was fun seeing most of the children in the audience all bedecked in fancy dress.  Our kids went as two Scouts from ‘Attack on Titan’ and Wolverine – and a teenager in teenage mufti.  Furthermore, the musicians were also in fancy dress.  There was even a T-Rex on percussion.

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The general theme of the performance was Harry Potter which meant lots of excerpts from John Williams’ score for the movies.  Followers of my blog will be aware that the kids and I are Potterphiles and Mr Pict and I essentially have the scores of John Williams as the soundtracks to our lives since he composed the music to so very many of our favourite childhood movies.  It was magnificent to hear that music, with all its conjuring of magic, being played live.  There were other selections of music that were familiar to our kids too, such as Grieg’s ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ but they also got to hear some music with which they were either less or not remotely familiar – pieces such as Liadov’s ‘Baba Yaga’ and Khachaturian’s ‘Masquerade’.  As a performance, it truly was incredible.  I loved every last minute of it and I think the younger kids in particular gained a lot from experiencing the music live.  My oldest son is not really into music so he just let it wash over him.  We tried.

In addition to the music, however, the performance was also designed to engage children through other means.  The conductor, Aram Demirjian, was dressed as a Hogwarts professor and played the part with aplomb as he explained to the audience about each piece being performed and delivered the segues.  He was accompanied on stage by a brace of magicians who performed traditional tricks for the kids in the audience to watch while listening to the music.  We all gasped when handkerchiefs turned into doves and laughed when a levitating walking stick accidentally walloped one of the violinists.  There was also a clever running motif about using the Hogwarts’ Sorting Hat to decide which section of the orchestra four different musicians belonged to.  This was a smart and thematically apt way to introduce children to the percussion, wind, brass and string sections and I think much preferable to the Benjamin Britten approach I was taught at school.

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It was a wonderful day out and hopefully the first of many to see the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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The Nutcracker

Yesterday was a cultural milestone for the Pictlings as they attended their first ever ballet.  Given the festive season, readers will not be surprised to learn that the ballet in question was ‘The Nutcracker’.  There are several productions running in our area but we opted for a performance by Internaitonal Ballet Classique at the campus of Neumann University, to the South West of Philadelphia.  The very much more affordable ticket price sold us on it – given that we were testing the kids in new terriotory – but we also hoped there would be a much more relaxed atmosphere.  It turned out to be a sound reasoning and a good choice.

I have actually only ever attended one previous ballet performance.  That was ‘Coppelia’ at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre some time in the late-1990s.  I enjoy classical music so I liked it well enough but have to admit that I miss the words.  I am just a verbal person.  I read, I write, I enjoy watching drama on the stage and on the screen.  I love words and so I miss them when they are absent.  I also cannot dance for toffee but we will stick with the love of words as being the reason for my being a ballet philistine.  So the kids were experiencing their first ballet and I was experiencing my second.

The great thing about ‘The Nutcracker’ is that the kids were familiar with most if not all of the music.  They like to listen to music as they go to sleep at night and sometimes that is classical music.  They also know chunks of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ from watching Disney’s ‘Fantasia’.  We found that they were completely absorbed in the dance and the music in the first act as there was a discernible plot and direction.  Said plot is, to my mind at least, pretty bonkers and perhaps even sinister in parts but the story is easy to follow at least.  In the second act, however, they began to lose focus and were less engaged.  They sat nicely and quietly and still enjoyed the music but we could tell that they were pretty much over it at that point because the plot had pretty much disappeared to be replaced by a showcase for ballet performances.  As a family of non-dancers, we lacked the knowledge and familiarity with the art form to properly understand what we were viewing.  We could definitely tell that we were watching skilled performers and could recognise that some difficult moves were being displayed so we could clap along to show our appreciation but it was impossible for us to engage on the level that some audience members clearly were.  The adult performers were particularly impressive and the really small kids were just completely adorable.

I am not sure that ballet is something that will feature regularly in Pict family life but we were pleased to have been able to introduce the children to another of the arts and a different form of creative expression.  It was a lovely family outing, however, and certainly added to the festivities of our holiday season.

The Cat in the Hat at the Arden Theatre

During our decade of living in Argyll, Scotland, one of the things Mr Pict and I missed was easy access to the theatre.  Previous to moving to Argyll, we had lived on the outskirts of London so had been utterly spoiled with having so many marvellous theatres and theatre companies in the vicinity.  Furthermore, as a High School English teacher, I had organised dozens of trips to see productions at both the school’s local theatre and into London. To then find ourselves about 80 miles from a professional theatre was a wee bit of a culture shock.  We missed it.  We made do with taking our kids to see amateur performances (which were often good quality) and going to the theatre when staying with family.  Therefore, one of the pros of moving to the suburbs of a major city was ready access to cultural events, including stage shows and plays.

As such, when the opportunity arose for us to visit the theatre this weekend, we jumped at the chance to kick-off our return to theatre-going.  The show was an adaptation of Dr Suess’ ‘The Cat in the Hat’ at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia.  The older boys thought they might be too old to enjoy it but we sold it to them as being like going to a pantomime at Christmas and that won them over.  The theatre itself is a really nice open space and the arena we were visiting was certainly comfortable with good views of the stage throughout – none of those annoying pillars to peer around or cramped leg room that I have experienced in Victorian theatres.



What was great about the production was that it remained faithful to the text.  I wondered if they would be tempted to borrow from ‘The Cat in the Hat Comes Back’ to bulk out the lines but, no, they stayed true to the original words.  What bulked it out instead was lots of wonderful, physical performance.  Each of the five actors were very expressive facially and with gesture and there was a great deal of physical comedy and skilful use of props on show.  There was a long (perhaps too long for the youngest audience members) first section demonstrating the boredom that the boy and Sally were experiencing that was almost wordless.  My four sons were captivated from the get go – even my older cynical ones – and there was lots of laughter and mirth from them throughout the performance.  The Cat in particular was mesmerising and had my kids spellbound.  Things 1 and 2 were also hilarious.  There were also some marvellous moments of unscripted audience interaction which had us all in peals of laughter.  Comedy serendipity.  It was a really well-crafted, skilfully performed, imaginative and engaging dramatic rendering of an adored book.  We all thoroughly enjoyed it and were very impressed.

After the performance, the five actors remained on stage to have a Q&A with the audience which I thought was a lovely tough since it provided the kids with the opportunity to learn more about stagecraft.  The cast then posed for photos and chatted with the audience some more outside the auditorium.  Here are three of the Pict kids with the Cat in the Hat – the oldest one didn’t want to be in the snap.


We then stopped off for some post-theatre ice cream treats for the kids.  I think this is something they will want to turn into a tradition.  The 5 year old got so messy with melted chocolate ice cream (far worse than when I snapped the photo) that he became a bit of a tourist attraction with people stopping to chat to us through fits of giggles.



We had a wonderful time at the Arden Theatre and will definitely go back and enjoy more family productions there.  Now that we are becoming more settled here in Pennsylvania, we will also have to investigate the other theatres in the area and sample their child-friendly productions.