St. Mary taking on the challenge of Jesus Christ Superstar

The cast of Upstage Production's Jesus Christ Superstar performs during a dress rehearsal on May 7, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

For their 2019 spring show, St. Mary High School’s Upstage Productions is taking on one of their most ambitious projects yet.

Tonight the theatre company will debut its production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock opera penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

The show focuses on the personal conflicts between Jesus, his disciples, the people of Israel and the leadership of Rome, with special attention on the relationships between Judas Iscariot and Jesus and with Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

The show focuses on both Judas’ struggle to betray Jesus and Jesus’ human psychology, fear and anger as he understands and accepts his role as a leader and a martyr. The music features 1970s rock, gospel, folk and funk themes, modern language and colloquialisms, along with high-energy dance numbers.

It’s a show director Jason Van Otterloo has wanted to do for a long time.

“I have wanted to do this show since I was in high school,” Van Otterloo said.

He missed it in university by one year but did a “huge” design project based on the show.

“It was very iconic in terms of changing musical theatre’s genre. We go from book musicals, where people have dialogue and break into son to this being sung through, and a concept album to start with.”

As a show that is sung without spoken dialogue, Van Otterloo needed to make sure he had the right group to do it in terms of vocal stamina and technique.

‘The two other things we’re very blessed with right now at St. Mary is we are very balanced guy-to-girl,” he said.

“We have as many strong guys as we have strong girls. That is a rarity in high school theatres across the country.”

The show also requires strong performances from individual actors, including those cast as Judas and Jesus, both of which require tenor voices with a high, strong vocal range, as well as a convincing bass to play the villain, Caiaphas.

Nick Tytula was one of those voices. He made his Upstage debut in 2017 when they put on All Shook Up. In this show, he’s playing Judas.

“This role is a really big role,” Tytula said.

“I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure from that, just to make it a really perfect role and get every little detail into this character.”

Tytula said that putting the show together has been a lot of work.

“There is so much in this show that needs to be put in order, even just with the tech and the cast.”

Van Otterloo praised the work and ability of his young singers.

“One of the things you need …. is a strong Jesus and a strong Judas who can sing powerful tenor notes that may not be in some people’s capabilities. We’ve had strong male singers go through (but) these notes would not have been in their ranges,” he said.

“This has been a lot of work. We’ve had some fairly exhausting but very rewarding days. There is something to be said for doing something hard, then afterward saying ‘yah, that was worth it.’ That’s what this group have brought. They’ve brought a competence and a desire … that I couldn’t ask from other high school students.”

While most of the cast consists of St. Mary students, Van Otterloo did find his bass from a slightly unexpected place — the football field.

Caiaphas is being played by St. Mary football coach Curt Hundabee. While he’s no stranger to the school, he’s less familiar with the stage.

“I’ve been bigging Jason for a while that if they ever did this show, I’d like to be a part of it,” he said.

“I tried out and found a spot, and here I am.”

Hundabee grew up singing with his family, around the table for grace and harmonizing while singing happy birthday

“You stand beside the uncle that sings your part and you learn your part. That was part of growing up. When I hear a song, I hum the bass line. Music, especially singing, is in my family. But I’ve never done a musical. Ever.”

HUndabee said he’s been learning from his fellow castmates, the students, quite a bit.

‘I ask a ton of questions,” he said.

“I’ve been at St. Mary for ten years, and every year, I’ve seen the finished product. But I’ve never seen the guts. I’ve never been part of the process of breaking it apart ..into the vocals and the choreography and the band and the tech. I still don’t have a full picture of how it is all put together, but I can certainly appreciate the complexity of it.”

HUndabee said he got to know Van Otterloo when they coached wresting together years ago. Since then, they’ve had discussions about how putting together a musical is a lot like putting together a football team.

“The techniques, depth and detail, and how the pieces of the puzzle have to fit, even what kid should do what role and what kid should play what position, it’s a very similar evaluating of abilities and talents and predicting potential. It’s a lot more alike than people realize from a coaching and a directing perspective.”

With a talented and experienced cast — and a bass singer that could keep up — Van Otterloo knew this was his chance to put on the show he’d been dreaming of since he was a student.

“It was one of those perfect storms where me and (music teacher Kayleigh Skomorowski) said that if this ever happens, we’ve got to take the opportunity when we can,” he said.

“Two years ago, when we saw this particular batch of students when they were in Grade 9 and Grade 10, we said … this would be one of the shows we could get. We may never get another chance to do this.”

On top of being a fantastic show with a talented cast, Van Otterloo expects the story will hopefully open the door for some people to take another look at the story of Jesus’ death.

“I want to humanize and make Jesus relatable again. We’re a Catholic school. As a personal journey, I want that to happen for other people. I’ve had a chance to now go through it with these students. Hopefully, the audiences who get to watch it will reflect on it as well,” he said.

Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice said this is a biblical story. This is a rock opera. Please don’t take it as scripture. This is an interpretation. If people take it, question it and it takes them back to looking into this sort of stuff, we’ve done our job.”

Even if you’re not religious,  Tytula said there is still something in this show for you.

“There’s a moral story to it,” he said.

“I don’t believe you have to be a religious person to come see the show. It is a really nice story, and there are a couple of life lessons in there too. It’s really nice to come and watch. It’s a really good show.”

Jesus Christ Superstar opens tonight at  7:30 pm. at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre. It continues nightly at 7:30 until Saturday.