Pier One production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” takes gritty look at rock musical

Jesus dies in the end.


OK, let’s get that spoiler out in the open. Just as in the Gospels that it’s based upon, in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the character of Jesus gets crucified, dies and is carried off by his disciples. End of show, curtain.

What happens before takes up the drama of one of the earliest rock operas. First produced as a concept album in 1970 by Andrew Lloyd Webber, music, and Tim Rice, lyrics, “Jesus Christ Superstar” appeared as a Broadway musical in 1971.

At 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Mariner Theatre, the Pier One Theatre production continues. Directed by Lance Petersen, Jennifer Norton and Mark Robinson, with choreography by Lynne Rolf, the cast of 48 features Kyle Schneider as Jesus, Curtis Jackson as Judas, Peter Norton as Pontius Pilate, Carolyn Norton as Herod, Hannah Heimbuch as Mary Magdalene, Susan Cates-Blackmon as Caiaphas, Jenni Medley as Annas, Zachary Nelson as Simon Zealotes and Van Hawkins-Wythe as Peter. “Superstar” continues next weekend. The musical includes some violence and a depiction of suicide, and parents who bring their children should be prepared to answer some questions about the musical, Norton said.

Webber and Rice set their opera in the last seven days of Christ’s life after he rides into Jerusalem. With music in the late 1960s and early 1970s pop style, and a traditional rock band backed by a small orchestra, “Superstar” has the style of classical opera. Sung through, meaning it has no dialogue, it doesn’t have the breaks of a Broadway show.

“It’s an opera in that sense of the word,” said Robinson, who also directs the stage band. “It’s a huge challenge, but I’m greatly impressed by the cast and the orchestra.”

The film based on the musical set “Superstar” in the classic Biblical setting while the music itself has modern anachronisms. Robinson, North and Peterson have created an alternate Jerusalem that evokes the Los Angeles of the movie “Blade Runner” — “gutter punk,” they call it. Norton said it’s a near-future setting, but not our modern world. Choosing a different setting came about because of the contradiction between the historical story and the 1970s music.

“There’s the time period Jesus was actually alive in and the time period the music was written in. There are two things that are conflicting already. Neither of those appeals to us,” Norton said.

The high priests have decadent, flashy frocks, while most everyone else wears tattered and patched jeans, lacy skirts, wild hair, and lots and lots of tattoos. Jesus stands out in his Carhartt carpenter jeans and a simple working man’s shirt. Norton said they sought a punk feel, with the downtrodden Jesus preached to as homeless people living in cardboard boxes and the rich in the high rises above

“You’ve got the super shiny skyscrapers on the hill smashed up against the slums. You can see that imagery, the haves and the have-nots,” she said.

The directors also take another risk with some of the casting. Except for Mary Magdalene, in the original album, most of the parts are sung by men — some of them, like Ian Gillan of the rock band Deep Purple, could hit screaming high-Cs, Robinson said. In the Pier One production, women play several major roles, notably Cates-Blackmon as Caiaphas and Carolyn Norton (director Jennifer Norton’s sister) as Herod. In the role of Herod, that gender bending fits in, Jennifer Norton said.

“He’s often portrayed as a frilly, flamboyant male character. Some of those things apply to a woman playing that character as well,” Norton said. “Herod changes his/her mind all the time and moves on a whim.”

For the female roles, Robinson had to adjust the vocal range a bit, something the music allows. Norton sings Herod’s role in a range high for a man but low for her, a low alto.

“She’s able to get those notes, even though it’s not her most comfortable range,” Norton said of her sister. “The same thing for Susan, singing the Caiaphas role. Some of those notes are low for her, but she has a low, powerful sound.”

Though based on a religious figure, the very man upon whom the Christian faith was born, “Superstar” also has a political basis. As a historical figure, Jesus and his followers flirted with revolution and risked the wrath of Rome, the Jewish governors and the high priests.

“I think it’s a mess,” Pastor Skip Bowersox, co-pastor of Church on the Rock, said of the politics during the time of Jesus. “We are so far removed from time and space from those unique struggles, those unique political tensions … Certainly Jesus was a political figure.”

The people are torn. Do they follow the Romans and remain oppressed or do they revolt? But if they revolt, they risk persecution. That’s part of the tension of the musical. Is Jesus a revolutionary of the earth or something else?

“Jesus in a sense was part of that confusion. That is why everyone wanted him dead. This guy is political and challenging their authority,” Bowersox said.

In the musical, Judas plays the role of the apostle questioning Jesus’ goals.

“Judas wants to calm it down. He can see if Jesus gets too powerful his message will be lost and he will be killed,” Norton said.

In a sense, Judas stands in for people thinking about the meaning of Jesus.

“Like Judas, when we are confronted with the person of Jesus, it compels a decision,” Bowersox said. “We definitely come to a conclusion. … We think he’s a nut job and that shapes our lives, or we follow him and that shapes our lives.”

Robinson said Peterson pointed out a line Mary Magdalene’s song about Jesus, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” where she says “He scares me so.”

“All these people who come in contact with this person, they don’t know what to make of him. He scares them in different ways,” Robinson said. “They don’t know what it is and it scares him. For that matter, Christ is frightened, too.”

Seen as history or spirituality, Robinson said he thinks there’s something in “Superstar” for everybody,

“If you’re a person of faith, you can find this to be a moving thing. If you’re not a person of faith, you also can find it moving,” he said.

Bowersox said as in another rock musical about Jesus, “Godspell,” he’s bothered by the musical ending just short of the Resurrection.

“The reason this story excels and gives meaning to Christians is the Resurrection,” he said. “We actually believe He raised from the dead, and what’s available to us, we can live life beyond this life. … There are 30 churches in Homer who would be glad to share the sequel of what comes after.”

Jesus Christ Superstar

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics by Time Rice

A Pier One Theatre Production

Homer High School Mariner Theatre

— 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 12-14

— 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15

General Admission is $18, Raven’s Club is $16, Under 21 is $15. For tickets, bring cash or check to the Homer Bookstore in Homer, River City Books in Soldotna or Country Liquor in Kenai.

Call the Pier One office at 907-226-2287 with any questions.