On Friday, August 12 at TSU’s Performing Arts Center (3500 John A Merritt Blvd, Nashville, TN 37209), Circle Players will celebrate the beginning of their 67th season with a decidedly new take on “Jesus Christ Superstar”, the 1970 multiple Tony-nominated rock opera from the creative team of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. As the cast and crew put the finishing touches on the show, I chatted with director Jason Lewis, music director Dennis Palmer and members of the cast for my latest installment of Rapid Fire 20 Q.
Rapid Fire with Jason Lewis, director of Circle Players’ “JC Superstar”
JONATHAN PINKERTON: Last season you appeared in Circle’s “25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee”. At the time you were still living in New York. Now you’re officially a Nashvillian again. What’s it like to be back home and at the helm of a show, rather than a featured player?
JASON LEWIS: Technically I’m still bi-regional, but I will spend the majority of my time in Nashville and I couldn’t be happier! It’s the most talented city in the country as far as I’m concerned. It’s the only place that’s ever truly felt like home and Circle Players has been a huge part of that. Whereas “Spelling Bee” felt like a Homecoming, “JC Superstar” feels like I’ve ‘been called home.’ Circle’s trust and support in my vision of JCS from inception to manifestation is the greatest gift a director can be given, next to a phenomenal cast. (I got that, too.)
JP: In the advertising and on Circle’s site, I’ve noticed the show is being referred to as “JC Superstar”. From the slightly different title alone, one might guess this isn’t your parents’ “Jesus Christ Superstar”. From what I’ve heard you’ve shifted to a modern take on the beloved classic musical. Can you elaborate?
JASON LEWIS: The non-Christ-like reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis got me to thinking…what would the ‘last eight days of Jesus’ look like were it to happen now, given the mass expectation that the title character will return again one day. In the Overture (you only get a score for the show, no stage directions or suggestions), I explore the time in between the original setting and now, and how the prophetic warnings of “JC Superstar”’s Judas have unfolded throughout recorded history. Afterwards, the physical world we leave our characters in onstage lends itself to a modern audience familiar with today’s religious turmoil and how relevant the peaceful resistance to political terrorism still is in a world even more celeb-obsessed than before.
JP: You’ve also taken some creative liberties in casting. Tell me about that?
JASON LEWIS: A big desire I had in before casting JCS was gender equality amongst the apostles. Audiences can expect to see a more inclusive Last Supper…and a dynamic, modernly-appropriate King Herod. I’m really pleased with my cast as a whole and their artistic diversity: ballerinas, cheerleaders, folk/Americana artists, rock band frontmen & women, quirky musical theatre geeks, teen actors wanting to take a classic rock opera to THEIR generation, talented individuals, previously sidetracked by adulting, now shrugging off long stage absences ‘just to do THIS show.’ It seems I have one of every kind of artist in this cast and I am rewarded every time they gather as one onstage.
JP: With all the modernization and creative changes, at it’s core, it’s still Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”. What drew you to directing this show for Circle?
“Superstar” marks my 6TH show with Circle Players. It also marks the first time I’ve directed a work written by someone else. I know, I know…of ALL the shows in the world, I picked THIS behemoth? Alas, even though I am not a Christian, I have a lifelong love affair with JCS and my production is an olive branch to believers. The music and story are phenomenal. I grew up listening to my parents’ ‘brown album,’ (their wedding song is “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” so I often joke that I was conceived with music from “Superstar”). Even though they aren’t huge musical theatre people, it’s their favorite show and being able to create this version is my love letter to them for their years of support.
I was truly inspired by Lloyd Weber’s Occupy Wall Street-themed Arena Tour and wanted to create a more modern-looking show while still staying true to a classically-staged piece over the rock concert staging many productions default to.
Rapid Fire with Michael Kitts, Jesus in Circle Players’ “JC Superstar”
JP: Ok, so you’re playing Jesus. Have you kept the deity complex at bay?
MICHAEL KITTS: Most definitely. As a matter of fact, I joked around near the beginning of rehearsals that I didn’t understand why people were calling me Jesus. My name is Jesús ( hey-zeus).
JP: How does one prepare to play Our Lord and Saviour?
MICHAEL KITTS: I approach playing Him as just a person. Like any person, He feels EVERYTHING that goes on around and to Him. So, there are moments of pure joy and happiness, of course – LOVE, but also anger and getting pissed off. Yep! Jesus has quite the temper! He is me, you, the woman down the street….He is everyone!
JP: Your’e a newcomer to Circle, but you’re no stranger to the Nashville stage. How has your experience with Circle been thus far?
MICHAEL KITTS: In my 25 years of performing in many varied shows and venues across North and South America, this group of thespians are BY FAR, hands down, THE most talented group of people I’ve ever worked with. I don’t think that could have happened without the name and reputation that Circle Players have created with their goal to do good theater and strive to be a step above the rest.
JP: What’s your personal favorite moment in the show?
MICHAEL KITTS: I would have to say, without a doubt, it’s during “Gethsemane”. It’s almost the end of the song, where Jesus sees that it wasn’t himself that started the whole Christianity movement. It was God, His Father and He’s being ‘used’ for a greater purpose; even if that reason is unknown to Him. This is the turning point for Jesus. Instead of proceeding with trepidation, He ‘let’s go and let’s God’….still human and frightened, He becomes a vessel and a slightly knowledgeable ‘lamb to the slaughter’…it is His ONLY way.
Rapid Fire with Erica Patterson, Mary Magdalene in Circle Player’s “JC Superstar”
JP: You grew up in Memphis. Anyone’s who’s had the pleasure of hearing you sing, has head the soulfulness in your voice. What’s your earliest memory of music having a presence in your life?
ERICA PATTERSON: I grew up singing in my grandfathers church right outside of Memphis. I loved it so much that I became involved in my high school’s choir which later lead to my involvement in musical theatre.
JP: When I first heard you were cast as Mary Magdalene, the first thing I though was I can’t wait to hear you slay “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. Aside for the show’s titular tune, that’s probably the most well-known tune from the show. What’s it like to be performing this iconic song from this iconic show?
ERICA PATTERSON: It’s an honor! With that being said whenever I’m given the opportunity to sing really popular songs I’ll listen to the original once or twice to get a feel of the music and after that I try to create my own sound and meaning.
JP: I’ve always found it interesting that Mary Magdalene is referenced within the four gospels more than most of the apostles. What significance do you see in that?
ERICA PATTERSON: I believe that Mary Magdalene is a very important figure in the bible. I feel that many people misinterpret how important she was because she was a woman. As you mentioned before she is referred within the Gospels more than most of the apostles and she was the first person to see The resurrection of Jesus Christ. She was undoubtedly one of the most loyal followers of Jesus.
JP: When I spoke to Jason, I mentioned that he’s exercised some non-traditional casting. Part of that has been to cast several females in roles traditionally held by men. If you could play any other role in “JC Superstar” what would it be and why?
ERICA PATTERSON: If given the opportunity to play another character in the show I would pick Jesus, I love what His character represents: strength, vulnerability, compassion, and love. I think that this story would have a huge affect on the audience with a change like that.
Rapid Fire 20 Q with Brian Jones, Caiaphas in Circle Player’s “JC Superstar”
JP: You made your Circle debut last season as Noah in “Children of Eden” and now you’re cast as Caiaphas, one of “JC Superstar”‘s antagonists. What’s most challenging/rewarding aspect of playing what is perceived as a bit of a villain?
BRIAN JONES: Every story needs an antagonist and it’s not always easy to be the character that no one likes, especially when you’re a pretty friendly and happy guy in real life. But, as a performer, it gives you the opportunity to dig down deep inside of yourself and use the pent up anger, frustration, failures and negativity that you’ve locked inside of yourself in your own life to bring an evil character to life. It is almost a cleansing of sorts to expel those feeling on the stage through your character thereby making room to accept the good and positive things in life. That said, sometimes it’s just fun to be the bad guy once in a while!
JP: How is it to work with Jason as a director?
BRIAN JONES: This is my first time working with Jason and hopefully not my last! Jason has a unique way of telling a story and making it relevant not only to those of us telling the story, but to those who will watch it. He challenges his actors to dig deep and focus not only on your character, but on your character’s relationship to everyone else. He bought an awareness about how a group works and interacts together on stage. Using those viewpoints, he’s allowed us to make individual decisions that feel right for that character at that moment. Most directors tell you were to stand, where to walk, where to look and how to speak. Jason freed us from those conventions allowing something unique and organic to form on stage that the audience will connect with. That is the sign of a gifted director.
JP: You possess a rich bass voice. When did you first discover you could hit those low notes and exactly how low can you go?
BRIAN JONES: Well, I had to ask my mom when my voice changed because I don’t honestly remember what I sounded like before this. She told me it was sometime between the 8th grade and my freshman year of high school. Singing is something that just sort of “happened.” I was fortunate that my parents let me play the saxophone when I was in the 3rd grade (I still play to this day). Over time, that developed into learning to play piano, bassoon and without knowing it, singing. It wasn’t until being accepted into my college choir that I was taught how to control this crazy voice and develop my range since aside from JSC, there aren’t many good bass parts in the musical theatre lexicon. I’m not sure how low I can go, but I’d probably win the limbo contest.
JP: In additional to playing Caiaphas, you’ve recently been elected President of Circle Players Board of Directors. What’s more daunting a task and why?
BRIAN JONES: Leading a 67 year old iconic performing arts organization is definitely a more daunting task than playing Caiaphas (which is, if I counted correctly, my 39th role on stage). It is exciting, however, to be entrusted the reins of such a storied and acclimated group rooted in tradition but constantly reinventing itself. Nashville has a very diverse and competitive performing arts community. My goal, as President, is to continue to make Circle Players an inclusive organization that produces the highest quality theatre. We want to grow our organization and by giving the community a safe and welcoming home to learn or perfect our craft, or membership will continue to expand, lifelong friendships will continue to be forged, and the community will have something to truly be proud of. Expect to see some amazing things in the coming years from Circle Players.
Rapid Fire with Dennis Palmer, Music Director for Circle Players’ “JC Superstar”
JP: This show is unique from most Broadway musicals in that the music was first presented to the public as a concept album, then a staged musical. Of course it then went on to adapted for the screen. In preparation, did you by chance listen to the original concept album, or soundtracks from the stage or screen versions?
DENNIS PALMER: I listened to a lot of different versions, including the original album, to get an idea of how different casts and Music Directors had approached the music. I’ve also done this production before, though not as music director. Some directors were pretty strict to the score and others varied wildly in style and arrangement. There were some I liked a lot There’s an Australian cast that’s on Spotify and their production came out in ’92 i think. It’s VERY reflective of the musical styles of the time and really a unique take on this show. We didn’t go for this style at all, but it’s really fun to hear what other people in other places and times have done with this music. To me that says a lot about how solid this music is.
JP: As Musical Director, I’d imagine you work closely with Director Jason Lewis and Choreographer Stephanie Jones-Benton. Can you offer a little insight to the dynamics of the trio?
DENNIS PALMER: Jason had a very clear concept of what he was after for this production, so that made it pretty easy for Stephanie and I to deliver something that fit well with that. Stephanie is a great choreographer, and her choreo work fits well with the approach to the music I had and the vision that Jason communicated. It’s a really solid creative relationship. I’ll also add that our vocal director and rehearsal accompanist, Kelsi Fulton was great to work with and contributed a lot to the overall sound of the music.
JP: “JC Superstar” is also unlike most musical theatre works in that the entirety of the story is told through song. To that end, Jason has peppered the cast with a number of performers who are more singer/musicians than actor. As a musician yourself, that must be gratifying?
DENNIS PALMER: It’s always nice to work with great talent, musically or otherwise. I think all singers have do a little acting to really communicate the emotion or the message of the song they’re singing. If a song is sad, the singer should feel some sadness, for example. This cast and especially our leads are really able to communicate through this music and tell the story in an effective way. Add to that… they just sound great! It’s really a pleasure to listen to them sing these songs each night.
JP: Is there a moment in the show’s score that you absolutely love?
DENNIS PALMER: The tunes are all so solid it’s really hard to pick… My favorite moment might be the last tune “John 19:41”. At this point, Jesus has died and his followers are taking him off the cross and they are just broken… just torn asunder. As a person of faith, this moment is extremely meaningful to me personally. For the audience, even if they aren’t religious, it’s clear that this man has given everything for what he believed and for these people. You can’t (or maybe shouldn’t) leave that moment without feeling the weight of it.
Circle Player’s “JC Superstar” opens Friday, August 12 at TSU’s Performing Arts Center with shows through Sunday, August 28. Showtimes is 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Friday-Sunday show tickets are $20 for Adults, $18 for Seniors (60+) and $16 for Children and Students ages 4 and up). Thursday, August 18 and August 25 are Pay-What-You-Can performances. Click Here to purchase tickets. For any other reservation requests or questions, email email@example.com
.If you’ve enjoyed this edition of my recurring celebrity interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q, be sure and subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler. Interested in coverage of your performing arts events, be sure and drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.