Smile Politely

Jesus Christ Superstar Takes the Stage at the Virginia

In the early going of Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas Iscariot works himself to a boil. He’s come to recognize that the entire messianic enterprise that he’s hitched his star to isn’t necessarily a surefire success. In fact, it’s beginning to look like Jesus and his entire band of apostles might be on the verge of disbandment — even destruction — at the hands of the Roman power machine. Judas is scared. After Jesus ignores several of his pleas, Judas bellows, “All your followers are blind/Too much heaven on their minds/It was beautiful but now it’s sour/Yes it’s all gone sour.”

But to say that Judas and Jesus had merely an antagonistic relationship is to ignore the complexity of their friendship, says Matt Fear, who’s directing the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar at Champaign’s Virginia Theatre Thursday through Sunday.

Fear has a point. Just a minute earlier, after all, Judas had cried out to Jesus: “My admiration for you hasn’t died.” He talked about “all the good” Jesus had done. Judas reminded Jesus that he’d been his “right hand man all along.”

This is a relationship that Fear finds both “touching” and “heartbreaking” — and it was one of the aspects of JCS that drew him to the show in the first place. Judas, who trumps even Brutus on the list of historic backstabbers, is presented in a deeply human and unconventionally sympathetic light — and without masking his faults. In many ways, the play allows us to see one of the most cherished narratives in Western religious tradition through the eyes of the Bible’s greatest villain.

“It’s a really interesting take on the crucifix story,” Fear says.

Fear, 31 and a native of Newton, Ill., has been hard at work on Jesus Christ Superstar since auditions began in late January. JCS marks the second play he’s directed in Champaign-Urbana, which has been his home for two years now. He’s been at the helm of approximately a dozen plays over the years, and he’s acted in so many that he’s “lost count.” Last year, he founded and organized the Champaign Park District’s (now annual) Shakespeare in the Park.

“Having a theatre habit is kind of like having a heroin habit,” he jokes.

If that’s the case, then the fix has never felt as good as it does with Jesus Christ Superstar.

“This is my favorite show pretty much of all time,” Fear says. “The music is powerful. It’s so well written. It’s a great a story.”

And the experience of directing JCS is all the better, he says, because he’s working with a cast of 55 or 60 actors who are talented, committed and passionate. A number of the actors are also prominent players in the C-U music scene: Jesus is played by Evan Smith (of Neoga Blacksmith); Judas is Brandon T. Washington (also of the bands Beat Kitchen and the now defunct Temple of Low Men); one of the priests is Bryce Johnson (of the former Third Stone); and an apostle is played by Smile Politely’s own Nathon Jones (of Brother Embassy).

As director, Fear says one of his goals is to bring Jesus Christ Superstar to a contemporary audience without losing the rock-opera vim and the ’70s spirit that creators Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber had originally imbued it with. One of the ways he’ll do this: make it flashy. The upcoming production will use more lights than any Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company show before it.

“You’re not coming to see a musical,” Fear says. “You’re coming to see a rock opera.”

Jesus Christ Superstar opens Thursday, April 3 at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign and runs through Sunday, April 6. Performances start at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a 2:30 p.m. matinée on Sunday. The show runs one hour and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $19 for adults, $17 for students or seniors and $6 for children. Call (217) 356-9063 for ticket purchase information.

Photos by Justine Bursoni

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