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The joy of the ‘Superstar’

BHS theater brings the 1960s musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ to the BPA stage.

Jesus kneels before Pontius Pilate, hands cinched together, head crowned with thorns.

While the crowd urges Pilate to crucify him, the Roman ruler of Judea questions the religious rebel.

“What do you want, Jesus, tell me,” Pilate, played by BHS senior Jenny Black says, “...Why do you not speak when I have your life in my hands?”

Knowing the end of the story doesn’t lessen the drama of moment, as the scene builds to the crucifixion, the climax of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” opening here May 13.

The first-ever Bainbridge High School student show to come to the Playhouse, “Jesus Christ Superstar” brings 40 student actors to BPA’s main-stage. The joint presentation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock opera, a work that caps BPA’s season, is the latest in a string of collaborations that opened in fall 2002 with Island Theater’s “More Fun than Bowling.”

“It has been great having the high school kids involved,” BPA’s Managing Director Per Sherwin said. “We’re delighted to bring diverse Bainbridge organizations onto the stage.”

High school theater director Bob McAllister notes that the Playhouse facility offers new opportunities for sets and staging.

“They (BPA) don’t have to build sets onstage; they can build them in another area,” he said. “There’s a 30 percent bigger stage area. Given the fact that, insanely, we do productions that have about 40 people onstage, it’s nice to have that extra 30 percent.”

Student directors and high school seniors Rebecca Antilla and Brett Mendenhall say they appreciated the chance to cap their years of BHS productions at the Playhouse.

“Being here makes all the difference to a production,” Antilla said, “because you have the chance to make something look incredibly professional. The lighting is amazing. There are effects we just can’t do in the LGI.”

For BPA production director Mark Sell, who has been teaching technical aspects of theater at the high school this year, having the kids come to BPA has meant a chance for him to further his role of mentor.

“It’s been incredible working with the high school students,” Sell said. “They’re very dedicated and talented, and their work shows it in this production.”

In several instances, versatile actors played roles without regard to gender; McAllister cast women as apostles and Black as Pilate – but played as a woman.

“What I do is, I take the people that I have and I cast it,” he said. “Last time, I had a female Judas. One guy who was going to work on the show told me he wouldn’t because the apostles were male. But you know that the apostles are humans, both male and female.”

For Black, who has appeared in three other BHS musicals, the chance to play Pilate presents enough extra challenges without having to play a man as well.

Acting on faith

One potential hurdle is the work’s familiarity; the rock opera based on the last seven days of Jesus’ life is so well-known that audiences may measure the local production against the film version.

Another is having to meet the standard set by “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” BPA’s well-attended biblical musical staged earlier this season.

And, Black points to the danger, for an actor, of an interpretation of a biblical character that is overly idiosyncratic or treads on the sensibility of the audience.

“It’s hard, I think, in a larger sense, to represent these characters out of the Bible but not let your own personal voice come through or offend others,” she said, “I think that’s become a huge tightrope walk. You could easily take this play and misconstrue it to be very sacrilegious if you just present Jesus in one light or Mary in one light.”

While there haven’t been extensive discussions, by the cast, of the politics of putting on the play, actors are aware, Black contends, of the potential pitfalls.

“I think that, in the cast, everyone has their own ideas about how this happened, or if it actually happened,” Black said. “I think that everyone is aware, as we perform, that we are on a very sensitive subject...The play shouldn’t point fingers at anyone – not at Pontius Pilate, not at the Jews, not at the Romans, not at Judas, not at God, not at anything. It’s everybody together.”

Dramatizing the death of Jesus with a rock opera laced with irony and humor – and, at BPA, with dance numbers choreographed by Vince Palazzolo that include miniskirted angels singing back-up while an Elvis look-alike gyrates in a skin-tight silver jumpsuit – may not be the venue for the rigidly pious.

Even in the freewheeling late 1960s, producers’ squeamishness about the play’s potential to tread on toes led to the release of the music without the show being staged. But the full-on extravaganza was a massive hit when it opened in 1971 and played for 720 performances at Broadway’s Mark Hellinger Theatre.

In “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Weber and Rice presented Judas’ point of view, making his growing disillusion with what he perceives as the all-too-human celebrity of Jesus the basis for betrayal.

Unfazed by being cast as a player many consider another villain of the piece, Black – who will study medicine at Brigham Young University next year – says she finds the contradictions in the character of Pilate reflected in the moral quandaries of everyday contemporary life.

“It’s fascinating to me, because I’ve learned a whole new perspective on how Pontius Pilate came to be, how he was frustrated,” she said. “Here are his subjects and they are the ones saying ‘do this, do this,’ and he was battling with himself and saying, ‘no, I can’t do this...’ It is a true battle that we each see every day (reflected) in our own inner battles, what we believe is right and what our peers say.”

While some friends have said they will avoid “Superstar,” Black believes coming to the show in search of art, not religion, may be the best approach.

“A lot of people are worried that it may degrade their spiritual health,” she said. “I’m talking to my friends going ‘no, it should be fine, it’s just a play.’.. If you understand who you are and what you believe on the subject, you can come see it as a play.

“Enjoy it for the work of art that it is – and know that we’ve put so much work into it.”

* * * * *

Lord of the dance

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” featuring musical direction by Mark Nichols, runs May 13-29 at the Bainbridge Peforming Arts Playhouse. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. An opening night reception at Via restaurant at the Pavilion is immediately after the May 13 performance. Tickets are $15 for general admission at the Playhouse, or charge by phone at 842-8569.

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