Come this Friday, theatre-goers will find the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar is packed full of exciting, fresh new talent. Open auditions brought in performers who had never been in a Workshop Players production before and for many this is their first taste of what it’s like to be in a musical. From local rock [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

What’s the buzz?

How does it feel to get into the shoes of Jesus Christ, Judas and Mary Magdalene? Smriti Daniel finds out just that from the cast of the upcoming Waorkshop Players’ production of the iconic musical Jesus Christ Superstar

Come this Friday, theatre-goers will find the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar is packed full of exciting, fresh new talent. Open auditions brought in performers who had never been in a Workshop Players production before and for many this is their first taste of what it’s like to be in a musical. From local rock icons to traditional choristers, from drama teachers to voice trainers, the cast has them all. This week they tell the Sunday Times what the experience has meant to them.

A couple of Judases

Gehan Blok can act but has always considered himself strictly bathroom singer material. Suresh de Silva on the other hand hasn’t acted since the third grade. But when auditions for Jesus Christ Superstar were thrown open to performers from outside the company, both men knew they wanted to try out. Now they’ve got their blue Judas coats on and days before the show goes on the boards, they’re absolutely confident. Each says he has his own distinct interpretation of the controversial role and that it’s been refined and shaped with help from the other.

Kavitha Gunesekera as Mary Magdalene and Gehan Blok as Judas. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Gehan and Suresh have watched every version of the rock opera they could get their hands on, and say their own is subtly different. Under Jerome L. De Silva’s direction, the story’s focus is on a triangle whose three points are Jesus, Judas and Mary. Judas himself is a fascinating character and in this story is treated as more than a synonym for evil. From the very first track he reveals a man who is genuinely conflicted and concerned for his friend and for the movement they’ve created. He’s thoughtful and thought-provoking. 

“It’s my favourite musical of all time,” says Suresh, confessing that ‘Heaven on Their Minds’ has been a staple at more than one jam session in the past. For the frontman of one of Sri Lanka’s most successful bands – Stigmata – performing in a musical is unlike anything he’s ever experienced before. “It’s terrifyingly awesome,” says Suresh. Still, there are things he won’t do. Where Gehan is mastering the choreography, Suresh has found his own move – head-banging.

Who was Mary, really?

It might be difficult to make up your mind about Mary Magdalene and what she meant to Jesus. The stories told about her are contradictory, her history imagined and re-imagined at the whim of every new narrator but one thing seems true – she was a strong woman in a time when strong women weren’t tolerated. Every production has developed their own interpretation, says Kavitha Gunesekera, one of the production’s Mary Magdalenes. “This is probably going to be a part of Mary Magdalene that hasn’t been explored,” she promises.

For Purnima Pilapitiya, the thrill of working with the Workshop Players has made this one of the most memorable experiences she’s had so far. Her mother all but weaned her on the great musicals. It’s how she knew the lyrics to ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ before she even auditioned for the part. For Purnima, the song says it all – “Mary may be the only one who really cares for Jesus,” she says, “She has no expectations that he will ever love her back.” This version of Mary is strong and independent and well able to hold her own in the conflict with Judas. For Purnima it makes her an interesting character to play. 

Mario de Soyza as Pontius Pilate and Rehan Almeida as Jesus. In the background (centre) Sachintha Dias as Caiphas and Dino Corea as Anaas

Achera Ratnavale feels the same and it’s conveying that depth of emotion that is the real challenge for the young actress. While Mary’s music isn’t particularly taxing, the strength and passion she has to emote is. They confess that as two very young, very new actresses taking on the role of an experienced, older woman, they’re really stretching themselves, but the challenge has also been a chance to learn. The fourth actress playing Mary, Amandhi Caldera was not present at the interview.

Kings and Priests

Ashan Algama is another new face on the cast – dressed in his black Matrix-like robes and building up a discreet sweat, Ashan is relishing the task of hitting the low notes his songs demand. Plus, he’s learning how to sing along with a track. While Ashan gets to stand around looking forbidding, Shehan Wijemanne has his hands full of doo-wop girls. 

Shehan comes from a family of Jesus Christ Superstar fans. A one-time chorister and voice trainer, he was excited by the chance to audition for the part of Herod. “I wanted to work with The Workshop Players and to be a part of this play in even the minutest way was a big dream for me,” he explains. Herod is flamboyant and larger than life in both physique and temperament as is Shehan, and he takes to the part with enthusiasm. His rich robes, thick eye shadow under comically arched eyebrows and exaggerated gestures combine to create a memorable Herod. As someone who get to see every cast perform, Shehan thinks audiences should consider coming twice. “Each cast is uniquely awesome,” he explains, “even if you’ve seen it once already you won’t get bored.”

A spiritual experience

Standing in a corridor just off the main auditorium, Rehan Almeida and Charles Chrisantha, (known to all as CC), are talking about what this experience has meant to them as believers and committed Christians. “For me it put a whole new perspective on the story I grew up with,” says CC, adding, “I would have to put myself in the shoes or the sandals rather of that man who was after all human.” For him there’s no moment more poignant than Gethsemane – it was the track that convinced CC that he wanted to try out for the part of Jesus instead of Judas. After his first audition he found himself actually shivering, he was so moved. “As a performer I’ve never experienced that before,” he says.

Like Suresh, CC’s rock bonafides are impeccable. “I came here because I grew up with this film and I really loved the tracks in the movie and it was obviously a dream come true. I remember I called Shanuki up and said ‘If I don’t get the role can I still work backstage’.” Now that he has it, he’s shedding weight to look more the part and is even spending more time in prayer. “Personally, it’s an accomplishment for me that I can sing these songs. I’ve had to sacrifice, change a lot of things that I would normally do to build myself up to this physically and spiritually both,” he says.

Performances of Jesus Christ Superstar are from October 4-13, 2013. Jesus Christ Superstar is presented by arrangement with The Really Useful Group Ltd. Lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and directed by Jerome L.De Silva. Tickets on sale at the Lionel Wendt box office. Tickets are priced at Rs. 2000, 1500, 800 & 500 (Balcony).

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