Equity actor Kennedy Kanagawa returns to his alma mater for Muhlenberg’s premiere of the rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” opening Wednesday through July 28, at the Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT) in Allentown. Kanagawa, last seen in the title role of “The Who’s Tommy,” takes on the role of Judas as he shares the stage with fellow alum/rock singer, Dan Cary, who portrays Jesus. Featuring lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Jesus Christ Superstar” dramatizes the last seven days in the life of Jesus from his entry into Jerusalem through his crucifixion. The show looks at those seven days through the eyes of Judas, the disciple who betrays Jesus. Hit songs include “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Superstar.”
Rounding out the cast is Jessie MacBeth as Mary Magdalene, Ed Bara as Caiaphas, Bill Mutimer as Herod, and Joshua Neth as Pontius Pilate. Director is James Peck, professor and chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at Muhlenberg College, who teams with former colleague/dance professor Charles O. Anderson (MSMT’s “Godspell”) as choreographer. Musical director is Ken Butler.
“We’ve been wanting to get the rights to ‘Superstar’ for some time,” said Charles Richter, MSMT’s founding artistic director. “This is new for us. …We wanted to vary our repertory,” he said, adding that MSMT presented another Rice/Webber musical, “Evita,” some years back. MSMT opened its 33rd season last month with the high-energy Gershwin musical, “Crazy For You.”
“ ‘Superstar’ has a great rock score,” explained Peck, who directed MSMT’s past productions of “HMS Pinafore” and “The Who’s Tommy.” He’ll be using a five-piece rock band led by Vince Di Mura, veteran jazz pianist and currently resident composer and musical director for the Lewis Center of the Arts at Princeton University.
Peck said it was experiencing the 2011 tour of rock group U2 at the Meadowlands in Secaucus, N.J., that affected him in directing “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“There was something about the way they occupied space at the concert,” he described. “It was that sense of being part of something bigger than you. This musical aspires to that.”
What interests him the most, he said, is the way the play explores the humanity of the characters – real people at the epicenter of one of history’s great moments. “You get a sense of Jesus as a human, of how exhausting it must be to be at the heart of a world movement,” he said.
Peck hopes MSMT audiences will leave the production “having had a rocking good time… Whether they come in faith or not … maybe it will lead them to think anew.”
Anderson returns to the Muhlenberg campus from Austin, Texas, where he’s been associate professor of Dance and African Studies at the University of Texas since 2011. He’s also artistic director of dance theatre X in Philadelphia, an afro-contemporary dance company now in its 10th year. Anderson said he grew up watching the work of Broadway actor/dancer Ben Vereen, who was the original Judas in Broadway’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1971.
Anderson described coming back to Muhlenberg “like a homecoming,” with a number of alumni involved in the production, including AlexJo Natale as assistant choreographer. In working with the cast of 27, Anderson said he’ll be bringing social, African and hybrid dance forms to the production.
For further info: muhlenberg.edu/SMT