Last March, in the middle of its critically acclaimed 25th anniversary season, London’s Musical Theatre Productions was on the brink of shutting its doors.
With a successful Cabaret performance in November 2014, and two Brickenden Awards for last year’s critically acclaimed Gypsy under its belt, the not-for-profit community theatre organization has come roaring back and is gearing up for its spring production of Jesus Christ Superstar, April 3–11, at McManus Studio Theatre.
“Just two weeks out from our main-stage production of Gypsy, ticket sales were drastically low. We rely on donations and revenues from our productions to keep our organization going and we had been witnessing a strong decline in both over the past few years,” recalls MTP president, Joe Recchia. “However, we got the word out that MTP was in trouble and that our June production of Songs for a New World was in jeopardy. Our members and supporters came out in droves to see Gypsy making it quite the success.”
Several donors and partners came forward to help MTP erase its debt from previous seasons, allowing the organization to carry on with its highly successful June show and to plan its 2015 season, says Recchia.
Seeking a popular spring show with broad appeal, MTP’s Board of Directors solicited community input, narrowing the selection to three choices. Jesus Christ Superstar was chosen because of the bold and unique vision proposed by the show’s highly talented and experienced artistic team.
Producer Nicole Newell summarizes the vision. “We want our production to be fresh to new audiences or ones that have already seen the show. Our version takes place in current day, with a group of fans attending a Comic-Con,” says Newell. “They go into a conference panel and instead of just talking they perform so the audience can discover the parallels between the heroes and villains of the biblical tale with those of the comic book world. No tights or capes here. The music, lyrics and story are untouched and comparisons we present are subtle and mature.”
Co-directors Angela Southern and Sam Shoebottom, two self-proclaimed comic book nerds, are thrilled to bring JCS to the McManus stage.
“I’ve musically directed JCS twice and I’ve always wanted to take a stab with my own concept,” says Southern.
“We are really excited about the modern concept and so is the cast. JCS has such a well-known story with larger than life characters, it seemed a really good fit for our superhero angle,” concurs Shoebottom.
The 25-member ensemble cast is a mix of veterans and newcomers. Jesus is portrayed by Trevor Richie, making his MTP debut, while Jenn Marino, who fronts local band Hiroshima Hearts, tackles the role of Judas. Marino’s last stage performance was in MTP’s Little Shop of Horrors. Kayla Rock, familiar to London audiences for her roles in Songs for a New World, and Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric play, plays Mary.
Richie is honoured to be playing what he calls one of the most coveted roles in musical theatre. “The role itself brings many unique challenges because you are trying to display such a powerful figure,” he says. “I am attempting to bring forth a very calm and reserved portrayal of Jesus. One point to keep in mind however is that he was human and every human can only take so much before they ‘lose it.’”
Asked how she feels portraying one of history’s most infamous villains, Marino says, “It’s very exciting to be Judas, let alone a female Judas. I love playing the ‘villain’ although I feel like this show doesn’t fully show Judas as the real villain people believe him to be. JCS shows the war inside Judas as he (she) deals with the battle between being Jesus’ right-hand man and seeing everything starting to go astray from the real cause they had originally been fighting for — to help the poor.”
Newell loves the intimacy of the McManus Theatre. “The intimacy of the space is perfect for an exciting and moving show like JCS. The audience has a front row view of the action and this cast brings it,” says Newell. “Our set is scaffolding, which provides lots of space and levels for the actors, and our four-piece rock band fits nicely underneath on stage right.”
Something special will also take place during the run of Jesus Christ Superstar.
“This year MTP launches a new program. Each year, the MTP board will select a deserving individual from the community to be honoured with a lifetime membership to MTP. We are pleased to announce that our inaugural recipient will be Art Fidler,” says Recchia. “Art was one of MTP’s founding board members and has been an avid supporter of our organization as actor, director, patron, and generous donor. His work with youth both as a teacher and with Original Kids has inspired a love and appreciation for theatre for over 40 years. Art will be presented with our first lifetime membership on the opening night of JCS on April 3, with a reception after the performance in his honour as well as the production’s talented cast and crew.”
Tickets for Jesus Christ Superstar are available at 519-672-8800 or online at www.grandtheatre.com.
Rick Young, whose work has been published in local, regional and national print and online publications, was the Managing Editor, Publisher and founder of The Beat Magazine, an independent London arts magazine, from 2009 to 2014.