Jesus Christ Superstar in Concert Takes the Wilbury Stage

jcThe “in concert” format for presenting popular West End/Broadway musicals came into its own with the 1995 presentation of Les Miserables’ 10th anniversary. Featuring a “dream cast” of performers from around the globe, the format allowed for multiple actors handling the same part while losing none of the musical continuity. Staging is kept to a minimum – actors are costumed and handle a few props, but are essentially locked in place behind a microphone, allowing the music to take center stage. This approach, while popular, can only really ever work if the score stands alone. One could not imagine, for instance, 42nd Street or Little Shop of Horrors in this setting, but Sweeney Todd would certainly fare well. Rock musicals such as Hair, whose soundtracks tend to stand a little better on their own as albums, are ripe for the “in concert” treatment, which brings us to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 classic, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Having presented Superstar in concert a few times over the years, David Tessier and his All-Star Band of All-Star Stars bring a fuller production to Wilbury Theatre Group’s new Olneyville space on March 30 and 31. The Easter weekend outings feature not only Tessier’s band, but a plethora of local stage favorites (including Mixed Magic’s venerable Ricardo Pitts-Wiley) fleshing out the cast of Webber’s New Testament-based rock show. The legacy of Superstar, blending musical theater singers as well as rock performers, continues with this outing, musically directed by Tessier, who has one foot each in Rhode Island’s music and theater communities. The overall production, however, is directed by Kate Lester, whose pedigree stands firmly in the theater world and is responsible for ensuring that this production is not simply a jukebox recitation of the Superstar soundtrack. Motif spoke with both Tessier and Lester about this particular production and how they started collaborating with Wilbury.

Terry Shea (Motif): I first became aware of your sporadic Jesus Christ Superstar “in concert” productions in 2013. Was that the first one? How has the presentation evolved since you started?

David Tessier:  We first put this on in 2012 at the PVD Social Club (now Alchemy). I had originally been asked about bringing Hedwig and the Angry Inch (which had been a sizable hit for Perishable Theatre at the time, and featured Tessier’s band) to the club, but it wasn’t particularly feasible or desirable at the time. So, I told them that if they were willing to put up the space, I had an idea for a version of JC Superstar. I gathered up some volunteers, and we put on two shows there. It was well received and we were asked to do it again. We brought it back the next year at Manchester 65 in 2013, and we had a great time and a great turnout.

TS: How did you come to work with Wilbury on this?

DT: I’ve done a lot of work at Wilbury over the past five years, and their new space is a stark, cavernous garage, which is a vibe that I love. I reached out to artistic director Josh Short, and he was kind enough to help us out with the rights and to lend us the space for Easter weekend, which was key for us.

TS: Who have been some of your favorite guests to-date?

DT: I’ve enjoyed working with every single one of the folks I’ve been lucky enough to have on this and all of my past projects. I’d have to say they’re all my favorites, but I’d be quite remiss if I didn’t mention that we’re feeling a real loss without our friend and ensemble member Sarah Good who tragically passed away recently. She was a huge part of our previous shows and we miss her. In 2012, I reached out to a lot of local rock band people, actors and singers whom I admired, and most everyone was extremely receptive. The RI theater community has been great and everyone I’ve worked with on this has been incredibly generous with their time and their talent.

TS: Of all the musicals you could have presented in this format, why Jesus Christ Superstar? Do you have a personal history with the original film or stage version?

DT: I was exposed to the music of the original “brown album” in 6th grade and it stuck with me. In the ’90s, I got to see a lot of different productions, and being someone who enjoys theatrical rock ‘n’ roll, I was never satisfied with any of the shows I saw. I think the piece lends itself to a certain way of doing it…a way I’ve never been satisfied with when seeing these other productions. I think it’s an opportunity to truly marry theater storytelling with the excitement of a rock show where you can see the band, you can see the performers up close and there isn’t this precious atmosphere of decorum that the audience must maintain. We want our audience to sing along, to get up and get a beer, to stretch their legs and dance if it moves them.

TS: Would you like to see this expanded into a full stage version or do you prefer this format?

DT: Not really, I prefer this format. I’m not interested in robes and sandals, but I certainly wouldn’t say no to a bigger budget…

 

Kate Lester, who recently won kudos for her direction of Epic Theatre’s Little Foxes, describes her work with Tessier (to whom she is married) on Superstar as a “labor of love.”

Kate Lester: [We’re] trying to do this play as we imagine it.  For some reason, this concept keeps calling us back. For roaming theater troops in the Middle Ages, The Passion Play was the only play, and the story of friendship, betrayal and redemption is incredibly powerful, even for the non- religious. The modern concept of a touring rock show layers over that beautifully, especially when presenting a show inspired by the “brown album” as we are. Plus, the limited rehearsal schedule and the fact that we have done this before really makes it feel like something that we all belong to, as well as a great party.

TS: What challenges are there in getting this production staged versus having to mount a traditional stage version? Is it automatically easier (not having to deal with body mics, etc.) or does it have its own unique difficulties?

KL: Every show has its own unique difficulties, as you well know. This show is easier in a way because the concept really defines the staging. Also, many of our favorite musicians and actors are returning, so it is like restaging a touring rock show. It is difficult, because much of the concept has to be conveyed through the singing, as in a traditional opera. Our actors are phenomenal with this. Also, while we are rehearsing elsewhere, we really only have one night in the space before the actual show. This is a fun challenge, as it is reminiscent of when we have done it in real bars.

TS: Do you find that the storyline is less of a factor when directing this format? Is it more about individual characters this way or are you still trying to find the dynamics of a full show?

KL: The dynamics of the full show cannot be denied. The storyline is always a factor, as well as the journey of each individual character – not just Jesus and Judas. The story is the thing. Otherwise, why are we here? However, the night can also just be enjoyed as a great rock show, much like when when we see a rock opera by The Who or Genesis.

 

As Easter weekend approaches, one might find themselves in the mood to take on some seasonal fare. If so, then head over to Olneyville for a dose of rock, religion and theater. It’s the Christmas Carol of the spring, and no doubt a lot easier to dance to. Only two shots at catching a performance, so consider getting your tickets now.

CAST: Judas – David Tessier; Jesus – Jared Robinson; Mary – Shannon Hartman; Priest – Joe Auger; Caiaphus – Ricardo Pitts-Wiley; Annas – Mark Carter; Simon Zealotes – Valerie Westgate; Pilate – Joe Short; Peter – Justin Grankewicz; Herod – Scott Morency; Maid by Fire – Sarah Leach; Old Man – Tom Grace; Soldier – Paul “Zeus” Sousa; With Ava Callery, Sara Brennan, Julia Bartoletti, Rae Mancini and Phoenyx Williams

THE BAND: Dom Panzarella – Guitar; Garret Matteson – Flute; Erin Erban – Violin; Tobias Andrews – French Horn; Nate Goncalo – Drums; Frank “Frankie Ranks” Moniz – Saxophone; Thomas Grace – Percussion; Paulo “Zeus” Sousa – Bass; Alex Tirrell – Piano; Jon Patrick Brennan – Keyboards

Jesus Christ Superstar in Concert by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, directed by Kate Lester with David Tessier’s All-Star Band of All-Star Stars. March 30 and 31, both performances at 8pm.  Presented by The Wilbury Group, 40 Sonoma Court, PVD. This show has sold out, but another performance is planned for the summer. For more information call 401-400-7100 or email: info@thewilburygroup.org.

 

 

 

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