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Photos by Jeremy Benson
Article by Lisa Purchase

When asked, "What do you want your audience to know about this play before they arrive?" Michael Walling, director of Pit & Balcony's Jesus Christ Superstar, answered immediately, "This is not the Passion Play. Everyone knows that story, Christ's story. This is not that story; this is Judas' story. And Pilate's story. And Mary Magdalene's story. It's about the difficulties of their decision-making."

When Jesus Christ Superstar opens this weekend audiences will get an edgy, rock-n-roll take on the other side of the story—the inner struggles and doubts and incongruities voiced by the possible pawns in this powerful story. This particular telling of the tale leaves a lot of ambiguities, giving the audience a lot of room for their own interpretation, which has made this play rather controversial, especially when it first appeared in the Seventies. "If you want to get along with people, the two things you don't talk about are politics and religion," says Walling, and as such, this play tends to polarize people; either they love it or they hate it, but it always affects them. After nearly thirty years there is still a national touring company; this show still attracts audiences everywhere.

"I like it when theater erupts!" says Walling, and then proceeds to demonstrate that with the energy and visual impact that erupt onto the stage as soon as the overture begins. (Having witnessed it myself during recent rehearsals I have to say, I think the opening of this show is going to knock the audiences right out of their seats. It is stunning.) The choreography and costumes, combined with the slick graphic set and some technologically driven iconography, give it the look of an electrifying music video.

The costumes are urban, no traditional earthy colors or textiles here. Monochromatic and modern, slashes of red are brought in by certain characters and events to signify conflict: something that is forbidden, controversial, unacceptable, the red fabric represents judgment, either coming from the character or being delivered toward the character or event.

The production is also marked by its use of women in some of the traditionally male roles. Walling comments, "In this day and age women have very powerful roles in the world. This is not a historical documentation, and I think it makes a lot of sense to cast women in some of the pivotal roles. Women make things happen."

The cast consists of Pit & Balcony veterans as well as relative newcomers. Many cast member of the recent Pit & Balcony hit The Full Monty have returned to work with Walling again, including Dan Taylor playing Judas, Jennifer Tesoro as Pontias Pilate, Scott Warnke, Mandy Fath, Spencer Wunderle, Ginny Rousseau, Lucy Malacos, Drew Williams, Samantha Whetstone, and Jacob Gorski. Also featured in the cast are Brian Bateson as Jesus, Kristyn Hemingway as Mary Magdaline, and Paul Lutenske in the role of Herod.

Those who know and like the music from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's collaboration will love this version: it's very contemporary, and the music is played by some truly extraordinary local musicians. Quite honestly, it rocks. The band accommodates a huge number of instruments and musicians to suspend above and behind the set (there is even a tympani crammed onto the platform hovering above the actors' heads backstage!), and includes some well-known local entertainers (Mike Brush, Loren Kranz, Ryan Fitzgerald), some veterans of local pit orchestras (Sara Taylor, Bill Howard, Archie Sawyer, Dan Erben, Darin Scott), and some talented novices to the professional music scene (SASA students Maxwell Gould and Jon Vanston).

While community theater is occasionally known to have its ups and downs, director Michael Walling will have none of the 'it's just community theater' mentality in his shows. "This is a professional theater—professional doesn't have to mean union. This is our business, driven by the efforts of the community, so we have to be committed to giving audiences a professional product." Therefore every aspect of this show strives to step up to a higher expectation and deliver a quality product. Even the sign in the lobby carries out that aesthetic, conveying a sense of professionalism and announcing that this show means business. And I believe that, come opening night this Friday, the audience will not only appreciate the product put before them, but will come away with a the sense that they have been somewhere, been a part of something grand. That's a product worth buying.

Business is booming; this show is nearly sold out. Call now for tickets at 989 754-6587 or visit Pit and Balcony on Facebook. The show runs Friday May 14 & 15 at 8pm, May 16 at 3pm, and May 21 & 22 at 8pm, May 23 at 3pm, with a student showing on Thursday May 20 at 8pm.

© Lisa Purchase, 2010