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Smell the Coffee: 'Superstar' promises to be super

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- My daughter fell in love with the stage when she was so very young. She was only 18 months old when I took her to see her first show, a local production of "Peter Pan." Over the course of the two-hour show, which she watched standing up, she never once took her eyes from the stage.

So many shows followed that I quickly lost track of the number. Her reaction was always the same -- riveted. At home, rather than the cartoons or animated shows most kids preferred, Celeste would watch videos of staged productions over and over again.

Even so, she wasn't one of those children who had to be the center of attention. She spent so much time hiding behind me and avoiding any kind of notice that I worried she'd end up being as backward as I, overly quiet, with a crippling fear of speaking in public.

Hoping to derail what I feared was genetically inevitable, as soon as Celeste was old enough, I took her and a friend to audition for roles in a children's theater production. Soon, one play was coming right on the heels of another, with summer theater camps in between. Skip ahead nine or 10 years and she's been in more than a dozen shows, the latest of which is as a member of the chorus in the Contemporary Youth Arts Company production of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Last Sunday night, I tagged along with her for rehearsal at the West Virginia State University Capitol Center Theater on Summers Street. It was the first time the entire cast was rehearsing all together on the actual stage. Although the set was still in the early phases of construction, the basic structure was there (albeit wobbly).

The original "Jesus Christ Superstar" -- a rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Tim Rice -- first opened on Broadway when I was still in grade school. While I knew the words to some of the songs, I'd never actually seen either the stage version or the movie.

As a child, I remember hearing that the show was considered blasphemous, so I was a little concerned when Celeste told us she was part of the cast. I read up on the controversy and talked to a few friends whose wisdom I value. Said a most devout Catholic, "I suspect that to many Christians of some stripes, Michelangelo would be blasphemous."

Said another, "I'm barely a Christian, but I left the show feeling closer to God."

So I went to the rehearsal to see for myself.

And was completely blown away by what I saw and heard.

For those not familiar with the CYAC, the drama group was formed 15 years ago by playwright and director Dan Kehde and his wife, Penny, along with composer Mark Scarpelli. Many of the group's productions are plays that Kehde has written. (Celeste is also currently a cast member in Kehde's play "Four Young Women Tell the Truth about Eating Disorders," which travels to schools or communities to raise awareness about anorexia and bulimia.)

Celeste met Kehde a few years ago through Charleston Stage Company's Summer Arts Camp, where he was a counselor, teaching playwriting and other theater-related workshops. Kehde somehow managed to get my prose-phobic daughter excited about writing in a way no one else could manage to do. I say this to admit I'm already a little biased in his favor, but after attending this rehearsal, I've become a full-out fan.

The talent in the room overwhelmed me, most of all that of Donnie Smith, who plays Judas. Because the rehearsal was casual, the cast members milled about on the stage. Smith was standing on his wobbly platform, looking all cool in his backward hat and ear gauges, when the music started and his phenomenal voice filled the room. The emotion he displayed during the songs had me near tears a few times myself.

The part of Jesus is played by Ryan Hardiman, the 2008 winner of "Symphony Idol" and a frequent performer in local productions. Hardiman was as impressive in this show as he's been in everything I've seen him in -- and he's never been anything but extraordinary.

I don't know the names for the rest of the cast, and anyway, the purpose of attending wasn't so to do a review. It was to see if it felt blasphemous, to find out what the fuss had been about way back when. Religion is such a personal thing, and I'm sure some will disagree, but for me, there was no blasphemy. What I saw and heard left me feeling closer to God.

And appreciative of the incredible talents with which He's blessed the members of this cast.

Reach Karin Fuller via email at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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