Jesus Christ Superstar didn’t have a prayer when it was first shopped around by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. Unable to find financial backing for a stage production, they released it as an album in 1970. The album’s success led to the show’s Broadway debut the following year. Since then, the rock opera has become one of the most produced musicals of all time. Theatre 55 will mount its own production from July 15-24 in the amphitheater of Eagan’s Caponi Art Park.
“In the case of ‘Superstar,’ I’d say it’s aged quite well. We hope to bring this great musical score to a new generation of young people.”
“Like most things that end up being great, people said Jesus Christ Superstar would never work,” said Theatre 55 artistic director Richard Hitchler. He is confident that Theatre 55’s production will be phenomenal.
“Jesus Christ Superstar is relevant again,” Hitchler said. “It has really never not been relevant. But now we see protests, we see people claiming to be perhaps higher in stature than they truly are. That’s what was happening in the early 1970s. The country was having a tough time then, and we’re having a tough time now.”
A resident of Summit Hill, Hitchler founded Theatre 55 three years ago as a company for actors and stagehands age 55 and older. “From the standpoint of seniors, our society is looping back again,” he said. “We’ve been through this before, and we can share what we know on stage. When you’ve lived it, you can bring that part of yourself to the role and to the production. Jesus Christ Superstar was the first real rock opera. The show is wall-to-wall music, and the music is so good.”
Theatre’s 55 production will be presented concert-style with standing microphones. That’s not to say there won’t be movement. “There’s a lot of choreography,” Hitchler said, “and a lot of the dancing has a kind of Motown feel to it.”
For this production, Hitchler brought in musical director Raymond Berg. The two knew each other from Steppingstone Theatre where Hitchler served as artistic director for many years.
Music is given fresh treatment
Berg welcomed the opportunity. “No matter what the show, there are always new ways to approach it, to discover and bring out a fresh perspective,” he said. “In the case of Superstar, I’d say it’s aged quite well. We hope to bring this great musical score to a new generation of young people, and give it a fresh treatment for those who grew up with it.
“We’ve had fun adapting the score to include many more parts for women,” Berg said. “It’s been great to let go of the traditional casting assumptions—for instance, that the disciples have to be all men. In this way, we’re helping to update the conventions of musical theater, moving toward a more diverse and inclusive future.”
‘A celebration of life’
In Theater 55’s production, some roles are sung by more than one person in order to make the most of the actors’ talents. Among those happy to have several roles is Macalester-Groveland resident Lisa Ramos, who alternately plays Mary, another follower of Jesus and other parts.
Ramos is primarily an opera performer. “I’ve become a better classical singer through my roles with Theatre 55,” she said. “Performing with the group has exceeded anything I expected, and those expectations were high. The energy here is a celebration of life. We bring audiences in and take them on an amazing journey.”
“Jesus Christ Superstar happens to be my favorite musical of all time,” said Summit Hill resident Gary David Keast, who plays Judas. “The musical style is something most people can relate to, and most people have been exposed to the story, whether they’re Christian or not.
“We’re very fortunate that Richard has created this company,” Keast said. “It gives us a sense of community and allows us to perform in roles that weren’t written for actors of our age. We all have an opportunity to be in shows that we may not have had the chance to do when we were younger.”
Brian Driscoll plays the roles of Pontius Pilate and a member of the mob. A Frogtown resident, he made his Theatre 55 debut in last winter’s The Rocky Horror Show. “I expected Rocky Horror to be a one-and-done experience,” he said. “But then I found out the next production was going to be Jesus Christ Superstar. And now my fortune continues. My family played that album more than any other in the early 1970s. It’s also how I learned to play some nasty air guitar.
“I graduated from Saint Paul Central High School in 1981,” Driscoll said. “While there I performed in the annual musical theater productions. Now I’m proud to be continuing a family legacy of performance. My grandparents, father and his siblings performed back in the 1950s at Theater Saint Paul, and my sister performed in Hair, the first Theatre 55 production.”
Jesus Christ Superstar will be performed at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays, July 15-24, in the Amphitheater at Caponi Art Park, 1220 Diffley Road in Eagan. Tickets are $15 each, or $30 for a group of three to six patrons who arrive in the same car. Visit theatre55.org.
— Anne Murphy
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