‘Blood, sweat & tears’
Drama, religion take center stage for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
Joe Stankiewics as Judas, Chris Rose as Jesus and Martha King-Devine as Mary Magdalene
hamming it up
Jesus and the Apostles
Janet Ryan and her band, Straight Up, will, as one reviewer put it, “rattle your insides and soothe your psyche.” You can check out her website, which is well stocked with music samples and videos: www.janetryan.com.
It’s a 2,000-year-old story, brought to life with an injection of human drama and a whole lot of songs. Some might say religion has never been so theatrical as it becomes in the 1970s Broadway hit “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“It’s all very intertwined, religion is full of tradition and ritual and spectacle. Theater is very much the same,” said Catherine King of Greenfield, who is in charge of Arena Civic Theatre’s spring production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” along with music director Chris Devine of Sunderland and choreographer Susan Edwards Dresser of Montague.
“People will say ‘the magic of theater’ all the time, but the true magic of theater is blood, sweat and tears; we just make it look magical and there are some elements of that to religion, as well.”
There’s certainly no shortage of singing in, for instance, a Catholic Mass, although the choreography of motion doesn’t extend much beyond genuflection.
Whatever elements of the theatrical religion might contain, and vice-versa, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is an unusually clear combination of the two.
Jesus can and does sing, as do the priests, Romans, lepers and everyone else. At all times.
Devine considers “Jesus Christ Superstar” the first rock opera, a category that presented an extra challenge for the cast.
“It’s like any opera; if you’ve seen Wagner or you’ve seen Verdi, or something like that, there’s a certain intensity that’s maintained throughout because nobody ever (just) says anything,” Devine said. “Even if they want to say ‘go get me a pencil’ they have to belt it out.”
Most of the characters in “Jesus Christ Superstar” are concerned with more pressing matters than pencils.
Spoiler alert: there is no need for a spoiler alert. The story’s been around for about 2,000 years and, even if you’ve never picked up a copy of it, you probably know the main character dies, albeit temporarily, in the original version.
In the musical, Jesus is concerned with his impending demise and everyone else is concerned with him, mainly as a potential tool or irritation.
Some of the disciples would like Jesus to use his influence to raise a rebellion against the occupying Roman Empire; the afflicted would like him to heal them of their various afflictions; the High Priest Caiaphas would like to maintain the status quo; and Roman administrator Pontius Pilate would like the locals to settle down and stop demanding he kill Jesus.
As usual, the best songs go to the bad guys: Caiaphas, Pilate, King Herod and even the ensemble of market sellers walk away with the 1973 movie version. As for the story, much of it centers on Judas.
Judas isn’t often treated with much sympathy. Dante gives him the worst seat in hell as a frozen chew toy for Satan in the “Inferno,” which was otherwise peopled mainly with contemporaries the author had the opportunity to get to know and personally dislike.
The musical adaptation of Jesus’ last week is kinder and expands Judas’ role from briefly mentioned traitor to a man deeply conflicted and trying to do the right thing, as he sees it, by reining in a movement spiraling dangerously out of control.
Given its biblical subject matter, less than strict adherence to the gospels, the humanistic presentation of the title character and the sympathetic treatment of Judas, “Jesus Christ Superstar” has occasionally stirred controversy.
“I think the people who do find offense in it are looking very superficially,” said Chris Rose, who plays Jesus. “It is from the perspective of Judas, so, superficially, it is anti-Christian. But, if you dig into it, it gets into the philosophy behind the movement that Jesus and the apostles were starting, and I find that to be an excellent thing to be looking at for anybody of any faith, really, because it’s a great philosophy. ‘Love thy neighbor’ is something that I think everybody should stand behind, regardless of their religion.”
A Protestant and in the position of looking at the story both as an actor and though the lens of a traditional Sunday-school education, Rose said the role has been a pleasant challenge.
“I guess when I first started, the biggest worry was that I just give it as much of a real human aspect without losing the fact that there are millions of people across the globe, including myself, that consider this individual to be divine,” Rose said.
The musical version skirts the divinity question — there are no miracles, for example — and focuses on the human relationships involved. Rose said accomplishing this has been like walking a tightrope, but rewarding.
“Everything that we’re all told is from one perspective and this tells the story from a different perspective. And, to my way of thinking, it’s healthy, to thinking and belief, to look at things from different angles and see if there’s something you missed,” Rose said.
Rose, an Air Force reservist stationed at Westover, recently re-caught the theater bug while playing Robin Hood for the past two years during Montague’s annual Mutton and Mead Festival.
Rose was first introduced to the 1973 movie version of the musical in junior high and was attracted to its musical and religious aspects. He has wanted to join a production of it ever since.
King similarly appreciates the show for both its religious and theatrical facets. “I’ve been doing theater most of my life but at Smith (College), I ended up taking a lot of religion courses, as well. So, I have almost as much interest in religion as I do in theater ... it’s kind of a perfect match for me,” said King, who also has the perspective of being a former Protestant and current Buddhist.
Staging the production was Devine’s idea. For Devine, who describes himself as religiously non-participatory, the music is the main attraction.
Devine is both music director and orchestra, coaching the singers and providing the accompaniment on electric guitar, violin, keyboard, saxophone and flute. He also keyed the score into his keyboard, allowing him to take part on stage as Pilate and to pick up another instrument without losing a beat.
“The show is something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Devine said. “This was certainly one of the first exposures to orchestral music for me and music that uses alternate time signatures, music that used a lot of diverse influences from Middle Eastern to jazz to R&B, to Beethoven and Stravinsky.”
A full-time professional musician, Devine said this ambitious and rehearsal-intensive project has been on the back burner for decades. When the opportune moment presented itself in his schedule, he brought the idea to King, who he knows well from past theatrical collaborations and from their marriage..
The production is to some extent a family affair. King and Devine are now divorced, but the cast includes their daughter, Martha King-Devine, as Mary Magdalene, and her younger sister Nina, Devine’s daughter, in the ensemble.
Working under the direction of both parents is an experience, King-Devine said.
“They got divorced when I was 4, so this is the most I’ve ever seen them together since,” said King-Devine, who is now 24.
King stresses that King-Devine got the part of Magdalene because she deserved it: she’s been performing since she was 3 and knows what she’s doing.
This time around, King-Devine has found herself becoming more emotionally involved in the story than usual, possibly because she was not raised in a religious household and didn’t know much of the story. “The truth is that it’s a completely heart-wrenching story,” she said.
The wrenching of hearts and singing of songs is scheduled for Friday, April 19, Saturday, April 20, and on April 26 and April 27 at 8 p.m. and April 28 at 2 p.m. in The Shea Theater, 71 Avenue A, Turners Falls.
The April 26 performance will be followed by a discussion panel featuring local spiritual leaders who will discuss the role of religion in today’s culture.
The on-stage cast totals 30 performers and features Joey Stankiewicz of Hadley as Judas, Steve Woodard of Leverett as Caiaphas, David Peck of Greenfield as King Herod, Su Hoyle of Wendell as Annas and Nicole Hamidi of South Hadley and Omar Sebastian Carlo of Turners Falls as apostles Simon and Peter, respectively.
The show closes Arena Civic Theatre’s 43rd season.
Tickets are $17 general admission, $13 for seniors and students and $10 for children under 12. They can be purchased at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, the Jones Library in Amherst, or at the door. Reservations can be made by calling 413-863-2281, ext. 2, or by visiting the website at www.arenacivictheatre.org.
Staff reporter Chris Curtis started at The Recorder in 2011. He covers Montague, Gill, Erving and Wendell. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 257.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.