Summer Music Theatre production of rock opera 'Superstar' explores human side of crucifixion story
Muhlenberg premiere of Webber's 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' opening July 10, embraces the arena-rock elements of the greatest story ever told.
James Peck vividly remembers the best rock concert he ever attended: U2 at the Meadowlands in 2011.
"It was one of the most quote-unquote 'ritualistic' theater experiences I've ever had," he says. "It had that seize-your-body, wash-over-you aspect of rock-and-roll—that feeling that you're part of something larger than you. That aspect of ritual."
That's the feeling that Peck wants to create as the director of "Jesus Christ Superstar," opening July 10 at the Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre.
"'Superstar' is a big epic rock musical about one of the greatest stories ever told," Peck says. "In the way that a really great rock concert makes you feel like you're part of something big and cosmic, I think a great production of this show should work the crowd into a sort of oceanic sense of being in touch with something in the universe."
This summer marks not only the Muhlenberg premiere of "Superstar," but also the return of former Muhlenberg dance professor Charles O. Anderson. Anderson returns from Austin, Texas, where he teaches dance at University of Texas Austin. Ken Butler serves as the musical director.
"Jesus Christ Superstar" runs July 10-28, Wednesday through Sunday on the Empie Stage, Muhlenberg College.
"Superstar" dramatizes the last seven days in the life of Jesus, from his entry into Jerusalem through his crucifixion. Set to a rock score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the show looks at those seven days through the eyes Judas, the disciple who betrays Jesus and "one of history's great so-called villains," Peck says.
"It is unusual for a show to take the vantage point of Judas," Peck says. "But it's what makes 'Superstar' unique."
The show features the hit songs "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Superstar."
What interests Peck most, he says, is the way the play explores the humanity of the characters—real people at the epicenter of one of history's great moments.
"You get a sense of Jesus as a human," he says, "of how exhausting it must be to be at the heart of a world movement."
"Superstar" features a cast of 27, including Muhlenberg alumni Dan Cary '08 as Jesus, Jessie MacBeth '13 as Mary Magdalene, and Equity guest artist Kennedy Kanagawa '08 as Judas. The show also features guest artists from the Lehigh Valley including Ed Bara as Caiaphas, Bill Mutimer as Herod, and Joshua Neth as Pontius Pilate.
"What I love about 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is that it takes these iconic figures that we are used to thinking of abstractly, and it humanizes them," Kanagawa says. "They have emotions and desires and allegiances and secrets. The idea of returning to my alma mater and making these discoveries along with this brilliantly talented creative team is thrilling."
The show features a spare, earthy design by Tim Averill, who brings his interest in sustainable theater design to the production. Annie Simon's costume designs draw from 1970s and contemporary grunge fashion. Lighting design by John McKernon brings a rock-show sensibility to the performance. The five-piece band led by Vince Di Mura will feature a lean rock-band sound—less lush Broadway score and more rock-and-roll.
The Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre has been bringing excellent theatre to the Lehigh Valley for 33 years. All productions are performed at Muhlenberg College, one of the top-rated college performance programs in the country according to the Princeton Review rankings. Muhlenberg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa., offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance.
"Jesus Christ Superstar" runs July 10-28 in the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown, Pa.
Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Regular admission tickets for the first four shows are $32; seniors (65 +) are $28; students and children are $20. For the remainder of the run, regular admission tickets are $38; seniors (65+) are $35; students and children are $20. Family matinees on Sundays are just $10 for children. For groups of 15 or more, tickets are $25 per person and $16 for students and children.
Tickets and information are available at 484-664-3333 or muhlenberg.edu/smt