How do people in the theater get their starts in the business? Not sure about everyone but for Leslie McCauley, Artistic Director at Santa Rosa Junior College, who spent her Saturday afternoons as an eight year old in her living room choreographing every number to her parents’ vinyl “Jesus Christ Superstar” LP, it’s no surprise that she ended up directing this iconic rock opera which opens Easter weekend. The show runs from Apr. 19 through May 5 at the Maria Carrillo Theatre.
McCauley points to the musical as having a life changing impact on her. She says it “was a game changer for me, for so many of my generation and for the generation that came before. And yet, almost a half century later, it still reverberates and touches the soul as strongly as it did in 1970.” This was enough reason to reprise this musical.
Also, McCauley found timeless themes beyond the ages old religious story. She noted, “The struggles between those that have the power and those that do not are timeless.” And then the director took a line from Hamlet to underscore her point: “‘the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure.’” Both Hamlet and Jesus represent many human problems from four hundred years ago and two thousand years ago, as well as now.
McCauley looks closely at the characters in the musical. “The relationships between Judas and Jesus, and Jesus and Mary, Jesus and power structure of Rome and the Priests, and Jesus and the disciples resonate on both the epic and personal levels. It’s a very emotionally moving musical! For me as a director, it’s all about love! And ‘Superstar’ is a musically thrilling examination of the perils of celebrity worship.”
Having assembled 29 performers in this musical, the performance centering on the title character, McCauley brought in guest performer Phillip Percy Williams to play the role of Jesus. Williams, known throughout the Bay Area for many roles in musicals, recently received the Bay Area Theatre Critics Award for his performances in “A Little Night Music” and “The Fantasticks.” For Williams, this is a very special production: “I feel so blessed to have an opportunity to perform my favorite role and show with this wonderful and talented cast.”
Surrounding Williams, college talent supplies the major roles. Noah Sternhill plays Judas; Ariana LaMark, Mary; Emma LaFever, Simon; Anthony Martin, Pilate; Riley Craig, Herod; Michael Arbiter, Caiaphas; and Jozifein Woods, Annas.
When asked if she had a unique slant in her interpretation of the show, McCauley reflected about how “Superstar” is seen by every generation as representing itself. So, she sticks to the original model. “Our production is staged how the show was originally written, more like a rock concert than a play, elegant and minimizing a focus on the arch typical storytelling.”
McCauley sees this production as inspired by the recent NBC “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” showing contemporary culture and recent street protests. McCauley emphatically insists: “No togas or white robes! Musicians will be brought on stage throughout the production and the band as a whole is in view of the audience. Lots of moving lights. The dancing is insane! Very hip-hop/street. The true stars of the production are the ensemble who are on stage most of the show and sing and dance up a storm nonstop. It’s a major cardio workout! Choreographer Alyce Finwall is a genius!”
Peter Crompton’s set design, “contemporary street/punk grunge,” matches well with Costume Designer Mary Scuzzari’s “Retro-Remake” as the Costume Studio “has done a fabulous job creating ‘new’ hip clothing by recycling/upcycling and re-inventing existing clothing. And, of course, we have some sexy, sparkly Soul Girl dresses!” McCauley reports, “Crompton’s set shows elements of classical architectural ruins and suggestions of the sacred.”
The original “Jesus Christ Superstar” contained twenty-three songs, including the Overture, which followed the events surrounding the Crucifixion. The well-known song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” made popular by four major singers, echoes through our minds today, and signals the rising action of the show.
Not only does this show fulfill Director Leslie McCauley’s childhood dream; also it has been a work of love in progress. Her final thought sums up her experience directing this production: “It has been a journey of the heart with this marvelous cast, crew and production team, for which I am deeply grateful.”
The Santa Rosa Junior College’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” showing thirteen times from Apr. 19 through May 5, will be performed eight times in the evening beginning at 7:30 and five times at 1:30 matinees. The show takes place at Maria Carrillo High School Theatre, located at 6975 Montecito Boulevard in Santa Rosa.
Purchase tickets by calling 707-527-4307 or going online at theatrearts.santarosa.edu.