Two Nelson actors share their paths to Jesus Christ Superstar
It has been 41 years since Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice debuted the iconic rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.
In that time the lyrics and script have been translated into many languages including German and have been performed for audiences around the world.
Unlike other productions, Jesus Christ Superstar connected with a generation and gathered fans who now know the songs like those of their favourite band.
“It’s not the type of musical that people may have heard of and may go see when they go to New York. This is a show that helps define a generation really,” said director Kevin Armstrong. “Almost everyone involved in the show grew up listening to it and I’d probably guess a good half of the cast could sing every word of every part right now. I’d like to see someone do that with Les Miserables.”
Like many other members of the cast, local actress and songstress Bessie Wapp — who plays Pontius Pilate — had a personal connection with the production.
Eight years ago while living in Vancouver she was asked by a friend in Cumberland to be part of an Easter sing-along version of the musical.
They were planning on showing the film version of the production with subtitles so the audience could participate. Attendees were also encouraged to show up in costume.
Wapp was particularly excited about one member of the audience, a man she had a romantic connection with.
“He lived in Victoria and I lived in Vancouver, and I was really excited because I had had this really intense experience with him, and he was coming up to see the show,” she said.
Even though the production was a sing-along, the lead roles had been cast and Wapp was playing Pilate.
A tiny church was converted into a theatre space and packed full of people who showed up in full costume.
“We handed out palm fronds and it was really great. The crowd really participated,” she said.
The 24 hours that followed the production was a journey for Wapp that addressed her feelings around motherhood and planted the seed for her return to the Kootenays.
“That was a turning point in me deciding to come back to Nelson and be closer to my family,” she said. “I had that relationship with the production and the role.”
While this is only the second time Wapp has been involved in Jesus Christ Superstar, she is no stranger to the stage or to music, in Nelson and internationally.
Wapp — who grew up near Queens Bay — remembers being drawn to theatre and performing at a young age.
“My earliest memory of doing theatre was when I was going to school in Kaslo,” she said. “We were living in Ainsworth while my parents built our house. I remember doing the song The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night, and we were acting out the animals.”
Even as a child, she was swept up in the fantasy and make-believe of the experience.
A similar experience happened when Wapp was a bit older and she saw a production of Boiler Room Suite.
“I remember a really critical moment of being an audience member and having the sense of ‘Whoa, I could do that. I know how to do that,’” she said.
Like many other teenagers, Wapp decided to attend art school in Vancouver, but quickly realized it wasn’t what she wanted to do.
But even though she didn’t want to continue with art school, she connected with various musical and theatre groups and returned to Nelson to attend the Selkirk music program.
“After I finished the program I went back to Vancouver and became very involved with two groups that toured internationally,” she said. “One was an eastern European vocal ensemble, and the other was a group of stilt dancers.”
The Chicks With Sticks became known locally and Wapp toured Canada, the States and Europe.
After 13 years of travelling, she returned home to be close to her parents and brother who still live in the Nelson area.
“When I came back I created a solo theatre show with Nicola Harwood — a really great writer and director,” she said. “We toured all over BC and then I just decided to stay.”
Since returning to Nelson, Wapp has been involved in numerous productions including the locally produced and created opera KHAOS. She also sings as part of Clinton Swanson’s Bessie and the Back Eddies, and teaches blues singing and theatre.
Through her work on and off the stage, Wapp is hoping to encourage people to express themselves creatively.
“Something I believe and is very foundational in what I do, is that everyone deserves to participate artistically in the community,” she said. “I see time and time again when I teach, the belief in people that they have a bad voice, are too loud, can’t do something or shouldn’t deserve to do something. That is something I believe our culture has put on us and it is so toxic because we all need to connect and tell stories.”
As Wapp takes the stage to portray Pilate for the second time, she will be sharing it with Kevin Armstrong — who not only plays Judas, but directs the production.
Armstrong is no stranger to Jesus Christ Superstar, but he is new to the role of Judas and director.
As part of the production in Switzerland and Germany, Armstrong has played Pilate and a priest.
“I played Pilate for the first time in Switzerland,” said Armstrong, who was also one of the lead roles in this spring’s KHAOS.
“It was a very different experience because it was a very small production with a five-piece band instead of a 16-piece orchestra like we have here. It was a little more modern like we’re doing here, but it was a bit sexier with kind of a slave and master style with leather and chains.”
With the musical’s evolution, different directors and musical directors take a different approach to the show.
Armstrong and his wife Laura Johnson — the production’s musical director — decided to keep the music as is, but change the setting and design of the show.
“We’ve definitely updated thing to a slightly post-modern, dystopic alternate future where the Roman Empire didn’t collapse — it just slowly crumbled after 2,000 years,” said Armstrong, who will be on stage as Judas opening night. “Fascism is also a large theme in the show. We are treating the Romans as fascists.”
Armstrong and Johnson also decided to create two casts for the production, something Armstrong had become familiar with while working in Europe.
“That was originally my idea because the show is so male heavy, and of course every woman in town wanted to sing Mary. We wanted to give as many people an opportunity as possible given that is the mandate of the opera company,” he said.
Johnson said nearly 100 people auditioned for the musical. What was surprising was how people they would have never imagined showed up to be part of it.
“Even our chiropractor,” Johnson laughed. “The vast majority of the singers have never been part of something like this before. It’s been really interesting to watch the transformation from completely not knowing anything about the process or having sung in anything necessarily to being actors, singers and dancers.”
Jesus Christ Superstar opens on Thursday night at 8 p.m at the Capitol Theatre
There will be shows on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday.
On Thursday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon you can watch Arron Nelson, Kevin Armstrong, Solona Armstrong and Taylor Wilson perform. On Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening, expect to see Michael Calledine, Michael Graham, Josh Murray and Julia Murray.
For ticket information visit capitoltheatre.bc.ca or visit the Capitol Theatre box office.