Baby boomer rock opera finds millennial audience

Special to the Tribune Chronicle / Savannah Florkowski Jacob Nash plays Jesus in Millennial Theatre Company’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Nothing like a little national television exposure to turn the quintessential baby boomer rock opera into an appealing production for a younger generation.

Millennial Theatre Company Artistic Director Joe Asente said NBC’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on Easter Sunday inspired the troupe to stage the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical for a two-weekend run at the Crestview Performing Arts Center.

“I saw a bunch of people in the millennial age bracket post about how much they loved the live version and how much it meant to them,” Asente said. “Until that time, I had no idea ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ was even on the radar for the millennial audience.”

Asente, a Girard native, grew up with the show.

“It’s one of my father’s favorite musicals,” he said. “I always tell the story, on Good Friday, the only music we were ever allowed to listen to was ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ growing up. It was always a part of our family. I have a strong connection to it.”

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” which tells the Biblical story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, was released as an album the year before its 1971 Broadway debut. It ran for nearly two years and was nominated for five Tony Awards. It’s had three Broadway revivals and spawned a 1973 film version. Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the film, continued to tour in the show for decades, playing Jesus when Neeley was in his 60s.

Asente drew inspiration from the NBC version — which featured John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Brandon Victor Dixon and Alice Cooper — for MTC’s staging.

“Andrew Lloyd Webber, his feeling about ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is it always works better as a rock concert than a traditional theater production,” he said. “The band is on stage with the actors at all times. Crestview has fantastic lighting and special effects. Technically, it really gives us a rock concert vibe. We tried to make it as updated and millennial as possible, from the costumes to the sets and the dancing and choreography.”

The costumes will have a more contemporary look. Jesus, instead of wearing Biblical robes, will wear a white hooded sweatshirt.

“We imply the traditional view of the characters without making it look like a church passion play,” Asente said.

Asente is director and Savannah Florkowski is musical director. The cast features Jacob Nash as Jesus, Joshua Fleming as Judas, Mariah Cresanto as Mary Magdalene, Robert Dennick Joki as King Herod, Landon Talbert as Pontius Pilate, Kade Meredith as Caiphas, Tylor Zuniga as Peter, Jake Butler as Simon Zealotes and Nathaniel Ams as Annas.

The apostles are played by Abby Morris, Emma James, Nathan Wagner, Eric Bable, Savannah Teeter, Veronica Vanoverbeke, Lexee Garrett, Lohgan Talbert and Sarah Kauffman. The ensemble includes Jarred Kalina, Dominick Spisak, Rebecca Williams, Bella Yanniello, Seairra Porterfield, Reece Xavior, Jayce Meridith and Sarah Ferguson-Burns.

The Millennial Theatre Company has staged shows at various venues in Trumbull and Mahoning counties in recent years, and “JCS” is its first production in Columbiana County. The move expanded the talent that came out for auditions.

“There were a lot of former Crestview students interested in returning to the stage and doing a show close to home,” Asente said. “We got students from Boardman, YSU (Youngstown State University) theater students as well as former MTC players.”

Crestview wasn’t the original location for the production. One sign of the musical’s youth appeal is that its approach to telling a Biblical story still can rile up an older generation nearly 50 years after its debut. Asente said MTC originally planned to partner with an area church, but members of the congregation objected.

“In the ’70s, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ had this stigma against it,” Asente said. ‘They grew up with that idea and haven’t let it go. The younger generation definitely doesn’t hold that belief.”

The move ultimately worked out for the better, he said. Proceeds from the two-weekend run now will benefit MTC and Crestview High School’s theater department.

“When they built the Performing Arts Center, they wanted to bring in other arts organizations do to performances but didn’t get much interest,” Asente said. “They were hoping it would take off the way Boardman (Performing Arts Center) did. We’re excited about the prospect of it being a collaboration between two organizations rather than a straight rental.”