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“Rock show at the Acropolis”
The University of Saint Francis caps off its 125th anniversary year with Jesus Christ Superstar
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
When an institution with one of the finest arts programs around calls on the talents of its faculty, students and friends to put on a show to mark its 125th anniversary, expectations are high that you’re going to get something extraordinary, something amazing, something on a grand scale.
In this case, the show is Jesus Christ Superstar, the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that’s been the subject of countless revivals, recordings, and even a film version since it first came to life as a concept album back in 1970. And the institution is the University of Saint Francis, culminating its 125th year with a production of the musical at the new(ish) Robert Goldstine Performing Arts Center downtown.
USF tackled Jesus Christ Superstar in 2011. Brad Beauchamp directed the show then, and is back at the helm for the 2015 production, which begins its run on November 6. “Directing a show like this is one of the most collaborative efforts you’ll find yourself in,” he says. “You’re working with a choreographer, a combat director, a costume designer, scenic designer, an orchestra director… And trying to get everyone together on this same plane.”
Beauchamp goes on to quote Rick Cartwright, USF’s Dean of the School of Creative Arts and the set designer for Jesus Christ Superstar. “Rick said, ‘there are no bad ideas. Throw them all at the wall, because in this type of production, everyone has something we can use’.”
Matt White, a graphic designer and computer arts instructor at USF who has been involved with the show, says, “This is a pretty hefty production. I know everyone has put in months on this. Now that it’s in the Goldstine performing arts center, we can take it to a higher level.”
And if there’s a show that can wear all the trappings of a big production well, it’s Jesus Christ Superstar. In fact, big sort of suits it. It’s often called a “musical,” but “opera” is much more accurate. “It’s one of the original rock operas, if not the original rock opera,” Beauchamp says. “Andrew Lloyd Webber and Time Rice had this vision that started as a concept album and turned into the beast that it is today.”
“This show moves so fast,” Beauchamp continues. “I’ve been telling the actors, ‘once the show starts, you’re either on stage or changing to get back on stage.’ It’s not your typical ensemble type show, where you’re in the chorus for songs 2 and 4, and then you sit in the green room until curtain call. You really are on stage the entire time.”
For the sets in USF’s production, the creators went with something grand— background projections, lighting, and other effects, all played against a backdrop set of pillars and arches, all coming together into what set designer Rick Cartwright calls “a rock concert at the acropolis.”
But the costuming is a little more down to earth, with the actors donning what Beauchamp describes as current day garb. “Not that there’s anything wrong with doing the production in ‘bath robes and sandals,’ but we wanted a more modern, eclectic telling,” he says. “Andrew Lloyd Webber saw a version of the show where the actors were wearing modern garb, and said that that was his vision when he conceived it.”
Futhermore, putting the actors in modern clothing really emphasizes the themes and ideas in the story. “It ‘humanizes’ Jesus and the disciples,” Beauchamp explains. “I always have this vision of the disciples as just ‘blue collar guys, laborers. They were fishermen, carpenters, a tax guy, but they were all just regular guys.”
Besides the songs, the “human element” is one of the most striking aspects of Jesus Christ Superstar. The show garnered some controversy when it first debuted for its portrayal of Jesus (played by Jake Wilhelm in SFU’s production; he also played the role in 2011) as simply a fallible man, susceptible to jealousy, fear, and anger, who nevertheless happened to have a very important message, and Judas (played by Ennis Brown) as a sympathetic character — the story is largely told through Judas’ eyes.
“Doing this show has actually changed my outlook on Judas,” says Ennis Brown. “In school and church, you’re always taught ‘Judas betrayed Jesus. He snitched on Jesus.’ But actually, that was his mission from God. Jesus knew he could only trust Judas with that mission. If Judas hadn’t done what he did, the whole story would have been different.”
Brown is no stranger to big musical productions — he was in Dreamgirls and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Civic, just to name a couple. Nor is he a stranger to playing historical and cultural heavyweights — last February, he played Martin Luther King in the University of Saint Francis’ production of The Mountaintop. But the role of Judas is on a whole other level to anything he’s done before. “I’m a singer, but this is non-stop moving and singing for two hours,” Brown says. “I actually had to get back in the gym to get back in shape, to sing and move and dance at the same time.”
“So it’s a little more work, but I’m up for the challenge,” he adds.
Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t have any dialogue — it’s all singing. But of course, there are some tunes that seem to distinguish themselves. Several songs from Jesus Christ Superstar — such as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” — have become part of the musical theater canon. For his part, Brown sites “Heaven On Their Minds” as his favorite. “That’s the opening song of the whole show,” he says. “Everything is in that first song; it sort of tells you the road Jesus was on.”
“Musically, this is like rock music,” Brown continues. “I’m a singer, but I’m used to singing gospel, R&B, ballads… here, I’m pushing every parameter of my voice, screaming, shouting… It’s a very powerful song.”
The longevity of Jesus Christ Superstar with audiences doesn’t surprise Beauchamp. The music is incredible, and the themes and ideas the story tackles are always relevant, no matter when the play is being produced or where it’s set. But beyond the great tunes, the story, and the spectacle of the production, there’s something else. If one of the criteria of “great art” is that it reveals something different each time you re-visit it, then Jesus Christ Superstar qualifies. In other words, it makes you think. Beauchamp, who is directing the play for the second time, says he is constantly hearing things this time around that he missed, or that just flew by him, when he directed the play over four years ago. “I’ll quote Will Rogers — as much as things change, they remain the same,” he says. “In Jesus time, he was thought of by the authorities as a rebel, a trouble-maker…
“I don’t want to sound too… ‘church-y’ about this, for lack of a better word,” he continues, laughing. “But I drive home after rehearsal and I think about this, and think ‘would I know Jesus today, or would I think he’s a nut?’ I would like to think that I would (know Jesus). A lot of people would like to think that. But I don’t know.”
The University of Saint Francis presents Jesus Christ Superstar
USF Robert Goldstine Performing Arts Center
431 West Berry
Fridays, November 6 and 13 at 8 PM
Saturdays, November 7 and 14 at 8 PM
Sundays, November 8 and 15 at 2 PM
Tickets: $18 (Adults), $15 (Seniors/Children)
Box Office: (260) 422-4226