‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Back to rock roots

If you go

What: “Jesus Christ Superstar”

Where: two weekends at Salem Community Theatre, 490 E. State St., Salem

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and June 10 and 11; 2 p.m. Sunday and June 12.

Reservations: Call 330-332-9688

Place:Salem Community Theater

490 E. State St., Salem




Even though Salem Community Theatre’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” opens Friday, the show should be in midseason form.

That’s because director Michael Dempsey and five of the 27 cast members — including the actors playing the key roles of Jesus, Judas, Pilate, Peter and Simon — just finished a run of the landmark musical at Players Guild Theater in Canton. The remainder of the cast has been filled with some of the Valley’s most-experienced actors.

Here’s what happened: Right around the time Salem hired Dempsey to direct “Superstar,” he got a call from Players Guild. The theater had lost its director and asked Dempsey to take over, which he did.

The Players Guild production closed May 8.

Dempsey also is bringing to Salem many of the set pieces and costumes that were used in the Canton production of “Superstar.” Parts of the choreography also will be used — albeit reworked for the smaller Salem stage — and Dempsey again will put the band on stage to give the show a rock ’n’ roll edge.

That’s not to say that the Salem production is a pure continuation of the one in Canton. Though the director’s vision is the same, the Salem show has a quality of its own.

In a question-and-answer exchange with The Vindicator, Dempsey gave an idea of what audiences can expect from his take on the iconic show.

Q. What sets Salem’s production of “Superstar” apart from others?

A. From the beginning, our fabulous musical director, Anthony Ruggiero, and I decided we wanted to create a ‘Superstar’ that had a rawer edge than many of the over-produced revivals that have recently been seen. The Salem show will have a more intimate, in-your-face feel. It’s evolving into something more intense in many ways than the larger Canton show was.

It’s also more faithful to the concept album stylistically, as we’re using the original arrangements. Our band is back-to-basics — drums, two keyboards, bass and guitar. Anthony and these amazing musicians have some serious chops that never let us forget this is a rock opera.

So while there will be similar choreography, set and costume elements — as originally created by Craig Betz (set), Susie Smith and Leslie Destefano (costumes) and choreography by Michael Akers — this production has its own singular and unique vision. I’m indebted to Mark Frost, Carolyn Saunders and Sarah Durham for all their work adapting the set, costumes and choreography elements, respectively.

Q. By putting the band on stage, you are taking the show back to its rock ’n’ roll roots and linking the music directly to the action. What is the desired effect of this decision?

A. In the show’s opening number, Judas sings: “If you strip away the myth from the man. ...” That has been our approach — to strip away the layers that have been shellacked on top of this show over time and return it to the power of its rock-album roots. It’s a piece of art that lives in two worlds — the world of musical theater and the world of the rock concert — and you have to honor both elements. So you will see staged scenes from history ... and you will see the band right next to the performers. You will follow the apostles into Jerusalem, waving palm fronds, but you will also see bold concert lighting and surging follow spots. There will be the cry of voices in prayer and celebration and the whine of amplifiers in overdrive. I’m not seeking so much to be different from other productions as to be as honest as possible to the source material, and evoke as powerful a response from the audience as possible.

Q. You have called “Superstar” the best rock opera ever written. But why do you say that? Is it the music, the story, both or neither?

A. Why do characters in musicals and opera sing? Because they have to. The thoughts and emotions churning within are simply too big, too powerful, to express through mere speech. This is why, to my mind, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is so powerful — because it is the greatest story ever told, and because nothing short of dancing, wailing, singing, screaming, celebrating and rock ’n’ rolling can fully express what is bursting forth from these characters.

So, ironically, it is the perfect topic for a rock opera, and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s execution has more passion and guts and intelligence than pretty much anything they’ve done since. Somehow, because it’s rendered in electric guitar and not church organ, our minds are able to cut through the centuries of dogma and infinite re-tellings and re-experience it in a visceral, real and believable manner again.

Q. “Superstar” is one of those shows that has actors lining up to audition. What makes it such an actor’s show?

A. These roles are so iconic, so impressive and challenging, that any ambitious actor-singer worth their salt wants a shot at them at some point in their career. It’s hugely impressive to be able to say you played one of those roles, because if you’re in the business, you know just how hard they are. It’s like scaling Everest.

Q. Who is in the cast?

A. Vaughn Schmidt is Jesus, Khaled Tabbara is Judas, Chuck Simon is Pilate, Kris North is Peter and Justin Edenhofer is Simon. All received rave reviews from critics and standing ovations every night from the audiences in Canton. Rounding out this dream cast are local greats like Rob Joki as Herod, Bernadette Lim as Mary Magdalene, Paul Sauline as Annas and Mark Frost as Caiaphas. I’m still pinching myself — this cast is so good.

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