'Jesus Christ Superstar' opens Eastlight season

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When he makes his first appearance in a white robe, with flowing long hair and beard, there will be no mistaking that Jarod Hazzard is portraying the lead role in Eastlight Theatre's production of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

That's the way Chip Joyce, who is director of the rock opera that opens a seven-show run on Friday, wants it. He isn't concerned that dressing Jesus that way, in a show that blends old with contemporary, from the costumes to the instrumentation, will be considered cliche.

"You can take liberties with a lot of costuming and other things about this show. But when Jesus walks onto the stage the first tike, you need to know it's Jesus. He needs to look like Jesus, what we've always believed Jesus looked like," Joyce said.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" is making its first appearance on a Peoria community theatre stage in 12 years. It was last produced at Corn Stock Theatre in 2003 and Joyce was in that show. But his love of the rock opera written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice goes back to his early teens and the first time he heard the album.

"By then I had already done a lot of community theatre and it was around that time I started thinking that someday I wanted to direct shows. I fell in love with 'Superstar' the first tme I heard it and knew then I wanted to be in and direct it when I got older," he said.

He was first scheduled to direct it at Corn Stock a couple summers ago, but had to switch shows when the rights for "Jesus Christ Superstar" were held up. When the opportunity came up to direct it at Eastlight, which performs in the auditorium at East Peoria High School, he jumped at it, he said.

The show follows the last few days of Jesus' life, from his confrontation with the High Priests, Pontius Pilate and King Herod to his crucifixtion. It is fast paced, with one song quickly following another but each telling another part of the story.

It also delves into Christ's relationship with Mary Magdalene, which was one of the problems many fundamentalists had with the show when it first was produced in 1970. Joyce said that and the fact the story of Christ and his last week on Earth was put to rock music was at the time considered by many to be blasphemous. "It was pretty much unchartered territory at the time. Now, of course, a lot of church services have gone from pipe organs to guitars and drums. We've come a long way in 45 years," he said.

Part of the appeal of "Jesus Christ Supersar" is that it isn't preachy and is non-denominational. "This show portrays that human side of Jesus Christ. In his time and place he was a celebrity and the show looks at him through that lens," Joyce said.

The set, designed and built by Steve Cordle, is a raked stage, meaning it is sloped from back to front. It has different levels, as well.

"It was tough to get used to and giving it purpose was a new and welcome challenge. But it works great. It adds another dimension and it can suggest dunes or whatever. It has been tougher for the dancers. Their legs are little more tired than usual because of the slope," Joyce said.

His cast of 35 includes performers who can sing as well as act; there is no choice in a show like this. But Joyce said casting it wasn't that difficult because "Jesus Christ Superstar" is a show that brings out "the right people" to audition.

He said he closed his eyes when performers auditioned because he was far less worried about their look than he was their voice and the singing style. For Judas Iscariot, for example, Joyce said Anthony Hendricks "nailed it" in the audition as far as the type of voice he wanted in that role. The fact Hendricks is African-American, as was the original Judas on Broadway (Ben Vereen) and in the film (Carl Anderson), had nothing to do with it, Joyce said. "It was his singing, his style. I needed a certain type of voice in that role and Anthony has it," he said.

Aside from theatre veteran Hazzard as Jesus and Hendricks as Judas, the rest of the cast has many familiar names. Jessie Pilcher portrays Mary Magdalene, Dave Schick is Pilate, Mike Reaams is Herod, Jeff Joyce is Caiaphas, Justin Holloway is Annas, and Darren Jackson-Adams portrays Simon Zealotes.

Music direction is by Laura Weaver Hughes and choreography is by Heather Klaus and Nyk Sutter.

Show times are 7:30 p.m. on April 24, 25, 29, 30, May 1 and 2. There is a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, April 26.

Ticket prices are $18 and can be reserved online at www.tickets.eastlight.com.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).