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.
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.
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.