Rocks and stones themselves sing

When asked why director Kevin R. Neuharth is doing Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” for the third time, his answer is simple – “Because it’s rock!”

The show, running today through Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. each evening, will be the last production for Minot State University Summer Theatre’s 48th season. Music duo Rice and Webber are known for their musical collaborations such as “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Evita,” but Neuharth said “Superstar” is the best. The rock opera is based on the last seven days of Jesus’ life, and there are “so many good, tortured characters that are struggling with everything going on” that it really makes for good theater.

“It’s good and loud rock and roll,” he added.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is considered the first rock opera. It follows Jesus’ skyrocketing rise to fame and celebrity, and shows how Judas increasingly questions the direction that things are going, ultimately leading to heart-wrenching betrayal. No dialogue is used to tell the story, but the music ranges from intense emotional power ballads in “Gethsemene” to hilarious theatricality in “Herod’s Song” and chart-busting tender songs like “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.”

This time around, Neuharth has chosen to tell the story in a more modern setting. He sees the story resonating with how college students struggle in our culture to be better and more productive members of society. While the students try to do that, however, those in charge are telling them they can’t and shouldn’t.

The recent controversy with North Dakota University students and how they were treated by many legislators, Neuharth said, really inspired this modern interpretation. In this production, audiences will see Jesus leading college students in an anti-establishment movement against the representatives of the establishment, including the priests, Pilate, Herod, the guards and others who resist the changes.

“We should rejoice when students find their voice,” Neuharth said.

In fact, the line from the musical that really resonates with this concept is, “The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing.”

Neuharth said adding women to the roles of some of the apostles and other traditionally male roles adds an interesting layer to the story. For example, the priest Annas is played by a woman, Claire Hoselton, which demonstrates how women are still struggling to get to the top – a struggle that forces them to make decisions they ordinarily wouldn’t make. These and other non-traditional casting choices really “opened my eyes” to new interpretations, Neuharth said.

New to Minot and having recently graduated from the University of North Dakota with an degree in musical theatre, Abby Schoenborn plays the role of Judas Iscariot. She said that although casting Judas as a woman does add an interesting dynamic to the relationship between Jesus, Mary and Judas, gender isn’t the important detail to focus on.

“You can feel pain regardless of gender or nationality,” Schoenborn said. “This is much more a metaphorical representation of betrayal.”

Schoenborn asks that audiences approach the show with an open mind.

“There is something to be learned, if you let yourself,” she said. “There are so many beautiful moments of human nature.”

Schoenborn didn’t know what to expect when she came to work for MSU Summer Theatre, having only worked indoors at cold, dark theaters in the past. She said that Minot as a town is so welcoming and everyone at Summer Theatre is so talented and accepting that she is loving every minute of the summer and will be sad when it comes to an end next week.

Working as set designer, tech head and playing the role of Jesus, Brett Olson comes back to MSU Summer Theatre from the theater program at UND for his sixth summer. This is coincidentally how long he has been wanting to do “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Since learning this would be the final production this summer, Olson spent the past nine months researching the biblical and historical background of Jesus and the apostles and, he grins, “growing out my hair.” The biggest challenge in taking this role, he said, is “everyone’s preconceived notions of this person, who isn’t just a person, and trying to bring a modern perspective to the story.”

Olson also loves how the music brings the humanity into the story and uses recurring themes to tie parts of the story together and make the audience think. His set design is supposed to show capitalism and corporate control using the color of money, and battling the concepts of students and learning using bright colors spilling out onto the set. Other elements of the set try to show how the media tends to distort public figures and what they are really about, which Olson said is an important part of Jesus’ story.

With a cast of 43, a 10-piece orchestra including an electric guitar player, and a number of people working backstage, there are nearly 60 people involved in bringing “Jesus Christ Superstar” to the stage. The entire season has been collaborative in nature, but this show has brought out the best in everyone. Neuharth said audiences “will enjoy the experience, love the show, love the cast, but the orchestra is rocking. So,” he adds with a wink, “you might have to turn down your hearing aids.”

Reservations are recommended, and can be made by calling 858-3228. Ticket prices are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students, $5 for those 12 and under, and $3 for MSU faculty, staff and students with current IDs. The box office opens at 7:30 p.m. and reserved tickets must be picked up by 8:15 p.m. for the 8:30 show. Military Night is Sunday, with discounts at all levels for those holding military IDs.

Concessions are available, including the signature root beer float, and special refillable buckets for popcorn and cups for floats can be purchased for use during the rest of this season and all of next.

The rain check policy states that if a performance is under way more than a half hour before being called, the play is considered complete and no refunds will be given. Bringing your own bug spray is highly recommended.