Superstar Jesus hits Portland stage
No pressure on Morgan Mallory, right? He plays Jesus Christ in the final week of his life, as Judas conspires to topple him from his lofty status as the presumed messiah, turns the perceived savior over to the Romans, and watches as the man and the myth become legend.
That it's spun toward making Jesus look vain and ego-driven in "Jesus Christ Superstar," an Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock opera presented by Stumptown Stages, adds to the enjoyment for the actor from Beaverton.
"You can't walk into something like this lightly, with any preconceived notion," says Mallory, 30. "The show itself is going to challenge every person's perception. That's the brilliance of it. It seems like a giant question mark, and leaves it up for different interpretations.
"Being the person who brings this guy to life and challenges people's perspectives is a big responsibility. I'll perform as purely as I can approach this musical Jesus as a regular guy who may have some spectacular aspects about him, but if you were that person, how aware of them are you going to be? ... Think of something that is unique to you, normal to you, that is ridiculous and fantastical to somebody else."
"Jesus Christ Superstar" was first staged in the early 1970s, featuring an iconic rock score and alternative Biblical storyline, as it's set against the backdrop of the extraordinary events of Jesus Christ's life as seen through the eyes of the disciple Judas Iscariot.
It's loosely based on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and it involves the personal relationships and struggles between Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene — as well as the disciples, the followers and the Roman Empire in the final week of the assumed messiah's life.
It was made into a movie and recently was staged live on NBC.
Many a theater company has put on "Jesus Christ Superstar" through the years — Post5 Theatre staged it here a couple years ago. It's understandable that Christians, at least some Christians, have an issue with the portrayal of Jesus Christ.
"It's one of those shows that creates controversy everywhere it goes, not necessarily because it's written to offend, but because everyone has their own relationship with the characters, Biblically speaking," Mallory says. "It's safe to say everyone has an identity wrapped up in their perception of Jesus. Any time you see an interpretation, you're going to want to see something you've seen in Jesus."
Gabriel Lawson, an actor from New York City, plays Judas.
"I like that it's not really a religious play; it's really just a great story," says Lawson, 27. "I love that it's a different perspective. ... We all know where Jesus was during this experience."
As far as playing Judas, he adds: "I like the role of Judas. A spoiler alert: I don't want to play Judas as the villain, but more of somebody in a toxic relationship. He loves Jesus so much, he gets caught up in the hype of the time. I'm the little devil on Jesus' shoulder, rooting for him, but maybe not doing the right things for him."
He and Mallory have worked hard to be true to their characters as portrayed in "Jesus Christ Superstar." They found immediate chemistry.
"Morgan's doing great. I'm glad that before the show, I made the decision to be a friend of Jesus (with the character Judas), because I love Morgan so much. We're such good friends," Lawson says. "I was hoping that I wasn't expected to be a villain, as a cliché version, because I'm friendly as an actor."
While Mallory excels through home study, Lawson does well in the rehearsal setting. Lawson calls it a "good yin and yang" from Jesus and Judas.
"That guy's energy is awesome. He pours so much into everything, even rehearsal, when you could take it easy. It's amazing seeing him tackling choreography and singing high notes that I'm singing. The first thing that struck me was how dang funny he was — everything out of his mouth," Mallory says.
He enjoys the score, which includes notable songs "Superstar," "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Gethsemane."
It was a genre-defining work Webber and Rice put on stage, influencing many groups in the 1970s.
That Stumptown Stages takes on "Jesus Christ Superstar" doesn't come as a surprise, given the company's success under the direction of Kirk Mouser. The company recently won 10 Broadway World awards for "Folk City," including Mouser (best direction) and Mallory (best actor).
Mallory, a 2006 Aloha High School graduate who now lives in Los Angeles, says he has conservative Christian friends who have enjoyed the play. When he told them about playing Jesus, they reacted with elation.
"They said it was their favorite musical," he says.
"It's like a litmus test for people who are willing to explore an alternative view of the story. I'm pretty sure our audiences, especially today, 40 years later, in all of (their) incredible diversity, will find something in this to connect to. It touches on so many things that we are still debating about today, both theologcally and politically."
He plays Jesus as a truth-teller.
"He was straightforward — 'that's not great and here's why' — and it was hard to argue with his logic," Mallory adds. "Many people have grown up and been raised to do that, not challenge his logic and accept his teaching as their own life. That's what's fascinating about this show."
By Stumptown Stages, "Jesus Christ Superstar" will be staged at Brunish Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Jan. 31-March 3. Tickets range from $26-$45. For more: www.stumptownstages.org.
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