NWFSC to present rock opera 'Jesus Christ Superstar' at MKAC in Niceville
NICEVILLE — Clint Mahle has done “Annie” some four times, “The King and I” about three and other musicals or plays several times that he admittedly doesn’t wish to partake in again.
But, Mahle, the chairman of the Humanities, Fine and Performing Arts division at Northwest Florida State College, has never done the show that impacted him the most — not once, he said. Until now.
Mahle is the artistic producer for the college’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He still remembers seeing the first national tour with his mother in 1974.
“After 42 years and doing a lot of shows, it's the show that has stuck with me the most,” Mahle said. “It's just compelling. It's hip. It's rock and roll style, but yet it's telling a story, an important story. It's got an interesting perspective that treats Jesus as a man, and there was some doubt and there was a lot of controversy when it first came out.”
The Humanities, Fine and Performing Arts division will present the rock opera at 7:30 p.m. July 21-24 and 2 p.m. July 25 on the main stage at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center at Northwest Florida State College at 100 College Blvd. E. in Niceville.
Tickets are $25 for adults, $10 for youths and free for NWF State students with an ID. To purchase tickets, visit MattieKellyArtsCenter.org.
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Director calls ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ the ‘Hamilton’ of her generation
What impresses Mahle most about “Jesus Christ Superstar” is how young Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were when they wrote it.
Webber, who wrote the music, and Rice, who wrote the lyrics, were both in their 20s when they conjured up the 1970 rock opera that they originally released in an album style concert version to raise money for the stage production that premiered on Broadway in 1971. Most know Webber as the composer of “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Mahle said.
“(‘Jesus Christ Superstar’) was their first success,” Mahle said. “Put them on the map.”
It was largely debated, though. The story is loosely based on the last week of Jesus’ life.
“Jews saw it as anti-Semitic. Christians didn't like the fact that (Jesus) had what appeared to be some kind of relationship with Mary Magdalene,” Mahle said. “There's the accepted Jesus image (that) is challenged a little bit. Now over the years, and with some softening, it's become less controversial.”
In the past decade, the show has made a resurgence, largely because of a 2012 revival Webber produced, he said.
“That is a phenomenal version of the show,” Mahle said. “Very, very prophetic in its interpretive approach. It very much mirrors today's society in terms of the polarization and the upheavals we're going through right now.”
That is exactly why Mahle chose it: because he wanted to remind people of its message.
“That’s the artist in me,” Mahle said. “It still reflects the times. (It’s) the message of Jesus: love. What are we seeing today? It's not a whole lot of love. To me, the message is really simple, and you don't have to be a Christian to appreciate it.”
While Mahle doesn’t want the production to be preachy, he thinks it’s a good time to not only remember the message but also ask ourselves how closely we're aligned with it.
“If somebody was to look at us with the question, ‘Is that person living the message of Jesus?’ How would we score on that test?” Mahle said. “I pick shows based on what I can learn from them. There's something about the show that gives me an opportunity to explore myself.”
The show is a rock opera because it’s sung throughout and it’s done in a rock ‘n’ roll style, Mahle said. There is no speaking.
“But you don't even realize it,” said Darla Kain, the director. “I mean, you don't even realize, ‘Oh, wait, they haven't spoken; it's all singing.’ ”
The show features various styles of dancing, such as modern ballet and jazz, she said.
“It’s such a fabulous show visually to watch and it's challenging to the actor,” Kain said. “You need actors, they don't have to be dancers per se, but they have to be able to physically tell the story because there's no dialogue. It's all lyrics.”
The show is “very ’70s,” she added.
“I'm so happy that this generation is learning about my generation’s ‘Hamilton,’ because this was the thing back in the day, and it just isn't done a whole lot,” Kain said. “I'm thrilled.”
Young cast members portray Jesus and Judas
Because the show originated in 1970, its young cast was hardly familiar with it.
The two leads, Grant Oberle as Jesus and Ricky Kozak as Judas, are 20 years old — younger than the people who wrote it.
“It was the weekend before I auditioned that I actually watched the show,” Oberle said. “I was surprised very pleasantly by what it was. With the title alone, which is pretty much all I had to go off of, I figured it was going to be some sort of like funk, pop soul corny whatever; I really had no idea what to expect. I really liked what I saw.”
Oberle watched a revival version. He liked how its interpretation was different.
“I liked that there was something new about it, something that they didn't pull right out of the Gospel; that it was its own thing but that it also was rooted in a lot of the most important parts of the Gospel.”
Kozak, frankly, was just happy to get a part.
“I have been singing since fifth grade, but never been in a theater production,” he said.
And neither of them went after the parts they received.
“I didn't put down really any lead roles at all, because I just didn't think I was able to meet the levels of those roles; there's a lot to them,” Oberle said.
“He didn't think he was Jesus material,” Mahle added with a laugh.
“I always thought Judas was a really complex character, and just didn't know if I had like the acting chops to really pull it off,” Kozak said. “That's the part that I was really scared about. They've helped me out a lot along the way.”
Playing religious characters intimidated both of them.
“I was like, ‘How on earth am I going to possibly do this?’” Oberle said. “Ultimately where I got is, I'm not going to be able to meet everybody's expectations. I'm not going to be able to fit the ideal of the Renaissance painting of Jesus. That's just not a way to be on stage. But what I can do is be as true as possible to the show, to both use humanity and what he's really all about.”
Judas, aka “the traitor,” is an equally tough role to pull off.
“For me, how do I portray arguably one of the most hated men in history, Judas?” Kozak said. “We've kind of taken a different approach to it. In every production I've ever seen, they've ever seen, Judas is always just this one-note character, always angry, so we're not trying to do that. We’re trying to be like, ‘Hey, he's my best friend. I really don’t like how this is going, and how do I make him more human and try to portray to the audience that there's two sides of the story and maybe what he did in that moment was what he thought was right.”
Regardless of their interpretation, Oberle said the audience members don't have to have a religious background to understand this show and be able to appreciate it.
“It's really not rooted in that to the degree that you need to know more than the show provides you,” Oberle said. “I think having some biblical knowledge would definitely add to the appreciation of the show, but it can also get in the way if you hold on too tightly to what is written in there because this show is really its own thing. It develops the characters in the story in its own way.”
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