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July 12-18, 2006

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'Jesus Christ Superstar'

Photograph by Shannon Stowe
The Man: Kit Wilder plays Jesus of Nazareth in City Lights' megamusical.

A Superstar Is Born

City Lights brings a big 'Jesus Christ Superstar' to a small stage

By Marianne Messina


DIRECTING the City Lights Theater Company production of Jesus Christ Superstar, artistic director Lisa Mallette's collaborative style goes well with jazz-minded musical director Gus Kambeitz. He and Mallette have updated parts of Andrew Lloyd Webber's funky rock opera with the occasional hip-hop beat, a smattering of rap and a dynamic range that goes from big production to "unplugged." Both directors wanted the feel of a rock concert while highlighting a very human drama (as opposed to pyrotechnics). Since Kambeitz plays bass through most of the show, he is not there to cue performers in and out of his layered vocal arrangements and Webber's complex time signatures. On the one hand, that has unsettled a few performers who like every cue scripted. On the other, as Kambeitz points out, characters won't have to keep looking up for musical direction. "We've freed them up to just act. ... There's a little more flexibility."

Kambeitz enjoys the idea that every performance will be somewhat different. He offers performers the safety net of a cohesive, synergistic band unit, having just released a jazz album with two of the five-member orchestra. What—Superstar with no string section, no horn section?

Kambeitz gladly meets the challenge with unorthodox voicings. In a 117-seat theater, the audience will already feel nearly outnumbered as 28 cast members disperse through the house. Mallette has radically altered the City Lights space to seat people on three sides of the action. "You won't recognize it," says Kambeitz. "[The performers] might be in the seat next to you." It's all part of Mallette's intention that the audience "become part of the P/passion." Kit Wilder, who plays the tite role, concurs. "We're asking a lot of the audience"—and of themselves. A two-time veteran of the role, Wilder has made huge adjustments for this production. After playing to the back row of venues more than 10 times City Lights' size, "I am constantly being reminded by Lisa just to be it ... don't magnify it."

And because he may have to "be it" within two feet of a spectator, Wilder has come to think of the audience as another character. "What they become in any given scene are the mob, other apostles. They change with the story." The spatial intimacy allows for added dramatic layers in musical numbers like the one between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. "We have a lot of nonverbal play," Wilder reveals. "He may be screaming at me about the crowd wanting to kill me, but really what his face is saying is, 'Hey, help me out, buddy; we can both get out of this.'"

Thanks to Ron Gasparinetti's huge, unmoving set, performers must not only be the characters; they must be in the location. Though Mallette calls the set "a beautiful amazing structure," changes in location are not its thing. Going from desert to mount to garden to downtown Jerusalem and Roman buildings of state, "It's all lights," Mallette admits. "So the actors have to take us from place to place."

In Mallette's vision, since Mary Magdalene and Jesus "are on the same page," Pilate (not Mary) is the third member of the opera's "emotional triangle" with Jesus and Judas. She sees three men on different trajectories that happen to intersect in this "preordained" moment. And that view filters into all the interactions. Even "Judas had to do what he did," Mallette muses, except "he couldn't live with it."

Rehearsing Webber's heated Last Supper exchange between Jesus and Judas has reportedly inspired vocal battles between Wilder and Adam Campbell (as Judas), the 23-year-old singer/rapper from the local band Mean ol' Lion. (Mallette cast another local band member, Jacob Vega of Kung Fu Vampire, as an apostle.) Like Mallette, Wilder also uses the word "preordained" when he contemplates his role and that of the other characters. "We are reading a script," Wilder says. "It's almost just a play within a play."


Jesus Christ Superstar plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2 or 7pm through Aug. 20 at City Lights, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Gala opening July 15. Tickets are $15-$25/gala $35. (408.295.4200)


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