Meet the original superstar
May 3, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Village Theatre re-imagines ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
“Jesus Christ Superstar” at Village Theatre is a reboot — New Testament 2.0 for theater audiences raised since the original run debuted on Broadway 40 years ago.
The latest outing at the Issaquah playhouse trades the ancient setting for a gritty alternate reality similar to modern times, sheds the robes and sandals, and re-imagines the apostles as hipsters in horn-rimmed glasses and scarves. The storyline about Jesus Christ’s last days and crucifixion, however, remains familiar.
The esteemed musical — billed as a rock opera since the initial album came out in the early ’70s — closes the Village Theatre season. “Jesus Christ Superstar” opens May 11.
Michael K. Lee, a Los Angeles-based actor, and local actor Aaron Finley star as the title character and Judas. Lee and Finley plan to alternate the roles from show to show — a rarity for the biblical musical. So, a theatergoer catching a Saturday matinee and a Saturday night performance could see the actors switch in the same day.
“It seems like the type of ‘Superstar’ that I think the new generation of theater audiences expects,” Lee said in a Good Friday interview. “It sort of brings new life into a piece that’s grown comfortable in how it’s told.”
Before reuniting for the upcoming production, director Brian Yorkey and Lee collaborated on the musicals “Making Tracks” and “The Wedding Banquet” — respected riffs on the Asian-American experience.
The actor also portrayed the monarch in Village Theatre’s “The King and I” in late 2007 and the pinball wizard in “The Who’s Tommy” months earlier.
Earlier performances in “Jesus Christ Superstar” — including a stint as the apostle Simon Zealotes in the lauded 2000 Broadway revival and another as Pontius Pilate in a high school production — prepared Lee for the emotionally hefty roles in the upcoming show.
“You’re going to see a young man wrestling with the idea of what the future holds for him, which all of us did when we were at that point where we know that we have to do things that we don’t necessarily want to do for the betterment of not only us, but for the people around us,” Lee said.
Balancing familiar and sacred
Because “Jesus Christ Superstar” is engrained in popular culture — in part due to a 1973 film and a blockbuster album — the cast and creative team faces a test in presenting a far-out iteration.
“Everybody has experienced this show in one way, shape or form prior to coming to see the show,” Lee said. “So it’s a huge challenge to challenge people’s preconceptions of what this musical is and what this musical is about.”
The team behind “Jesus Christ Superstar” aims to portray the friendship between Jesus and Judas caught in political crosscurrents. In addition to the contemporary costumes and setting, the piece includes allusions to modern-day Middle East strife.
“I think a question we were all interested in is: What would be Jesus’ response to our world today?” Yorkey said.
Village Theatre last staged “Jesus Christ Superstar” — albeit in a more traditional telling — 18 years ago.
“There are huge challenges with ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ There are people who know every word and every note — and adore it. There are many more people who may not know every note or every word of the show, but who know every word of the story — and cherish that more deeply than they cherish anything. Both kinds of people and many more — pretty much everyone — already knows the ending,” Yorkey said. “When you put those three things together, how do you turn that into a show that engages everyone?”
Before garnering a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize as author-lyricist for the rock musical “Next to Normal” — a searing glimpse at bipolar disorder — Yorkey earned a religion degree from Columbia University. The run-up to “Jesus Christ Superstar” prompted the director to consult religious and academic perspectives on the Gospels.
“If we can sort of find these resonances to the lives that we’re living, it’s going to jar us a little bit, because it’s not going to look like the Jesus story we’re used to, but it’s also going hopefully to help us see it in a new way,” he said.
If you go
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
- Village Theatre — Francis J. Gaudette Theatre
- 303 Front St. N.
- May 11 to July 3
- Show times vary
- $20 to $60
- 392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org