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'Jesus Christ Superstar' a passion play for CYAC

Chip Ellis
Ryan Hardiman stars as Jesus when the Contemporary Youth Arts Company opens "Jesus Christ Superstar" at the Capitol Center Theater Thursday.

WANT TO GO?

"Jesus Christ Superstar"

Presented by Contemporary Youth Arts Company

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and April 5-7; 2 p.m. Sunday 

WHERE: Capitol Center Theater, 123 Summers St.

TICKETS: Adults $10, students $6.

INFO: 304-342-6522 CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Director Dan Kehde has had a familiar weary look to him this week. It's tech week -- those few days before a play opens when those last rehearsals get intense.

Thursday night, the Contemporary Youth Action Company opens "Jesus Christ Superstar," a monster of a rock musical chronicling the last days of Jesus Christ, at the Capitol Center Theater.

"It's a big [play] in a little theater," Kehde sighed.

It's also something of a rarity for CYAC. Kehde and local composer Mark Scarpelli write and produce most of the material the company performs. However, purchasing the rights to a play isn't unheard of for the group.

"We've done this one before, back in 2004. We even had the same leads," Kehde said, referring to Ryan Hardiman and Donnie Smith who portray Jesus and Judas, respectively.

"'Jesus Christ Superstar' is very special to me," he added.

For starters, it was the first show Kehde was involved in as an adult. It was 1973 and he was in college. Kehde said the production of that play and this one is both very different and very similar.

In 1973, the original production was still on Broadway and wasn't yet licensed for local productions. "We were one of the 73 illegal productions being performed around the country."

Like most of the others, they got the script from the dramatized album released in 1970. The lyrics to the songs were in the liner notes. The dialogue was all on the album.

"We had the lyrics right there," he said then added that it didn't remain an outlaw production for long. "We started off illegal, but by the fourth performance, we got the rights."

Lyrics and dialogue were one thing. Staging was another. In the 1970s, theater companies had to come up with their own staging. They had the lyrics and the dialogue, but they had to figure out where everybody was supposed to be on stage.

Forty years later, when CYAC got the scripts from the publisher, the first thing Kehde noticed was that they had the lyrics and dialogue, but no directions on how to put the cast together. Whatever CYAC did was up to him, which might sound challenging, but Kehde looked at it as an opportunity.

"It presented us with an enormous amount of flexibility," he said.

The flexibility allowed him to add more of a local accent, like bringing in choreographer Rob Royce. He could do whatever he wanted, but still Kehde said the group had to be careful. 

"The focus isn't the dance or the music. The focus is Jesus Christ," which, Kehde explained, isn't necessarily an easy idea for a theater group to hold on to.

"We've got a really good bunch of kids this time," he said. "It's a difficult play, and it requires a lot of emotional involvement from the chorus as well as the principal actors."

Kehde also said that in order for the play to be successful, the actors had to be willing to give up the spotlight, which often runs counter to why some young actors get involved in theater in the first place.

"These kids are very generous," he said. "But giving up the spotlight, letting the focus stay on Jesus, makes the show."

"Jesus Christ Superstar" is loosely based on the Gospels' account of the last week of Jesus' life. When it first opened, it was controversial among religious groups. Judas was seen as too sympathetic by some. Some Jewish groups claimed it promoted anti-Semitic views.

Still, Kehde said, "I don't think anyone walks away from this show without feeling something. I don't necessarily think it's going to be a religious experience, but I think they'll walk away having a had a very human experience." 

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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