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Classic musical

Brian Doig, standing in front, plays Jesus Christ in the Lake City Playhouse production of
Brian Doig, standing in front, plays Jesus Christ in the Lake City Playhouse production of "Jesus Christ Superstar." The rock musical runs through next Saturday. (Tom Davenport / / The Spokesman-Review)

Director Noel Barbuto took on a daunting task when he decided to bring the 35-year-old rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” to the Lake City Playhouse. The musical, with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, tells the story of the final days of Jesus’ life, as told through Judas’ eyes.

The production, which debuted in the late 1960s, can be performed with great spectacle, but the Playhouse doesn’t have the luxury of a huge stage with all the bells and whistles of a larger theater. At a nearly-square 27-feet-by-26-feet, the Playhouse’s stage is atypical, so Barbuto had to get creative.

He needed level areas, room enough for the actors to dance, and room for the band. To achieve his vision, he cut the stage in quarters, with the first section flat, the section behind sloping toward a backdrop of mountain scenery, and the band placed behind the backdrop wall. From there he was able to play with the direction by knowing where his focus was. For example, the actors in the foreground are sitting on the stairs so the audience can still see Jesus.

Barbuto said it’s important not to have too many actors on stage at once, and during part of the song “Hosanna,” the cast travels through the audience waving palms. Unlike the 1999 adaptation of the story, where the action is set in a more modern style, Barbuto chose to stay with the classic style, with characters dressed in period costumes.

Thirty percent of the crucifixion scene is in the dark. For a couple of the more rock ‘n’ roll numbers, he created a sort of mini rock show, with spectacular use of lights. Color is used to represent places.

Barbuto said that 95 percent of his cast members are very religious, and are performing in “Jesus Christ Superstar” because they like the story.

“It’s not a passion play;K it’s a secular adaptation of a sacred story, and with that I try to take great care in balancing out Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s vision, but try to give my own style to it,” Barbuto said. “It’s done through Judas’ eyes and that’s where the conflict comes in. Not a lot of people like having that idea. Did he just go bad in those last few days, or was he turning out to be a bad seed? This is a musical and artistic interpretation of the viewpoint of Judas in the last few days of Jesus Christ.”

Barbuto said people relate to the play because most everybody knows the story. It is part of our culture. He said that the goal of the production definitely isn’t to proselytize; rather it is to present a good story.

But Barbuto has added twists to the classic adaptation of the tale.

For example, the character of Judas, played by Robby French, starts out in modern clothes. He reappears next in clothing appropriate to 2,000 years ago. Once his character dies, he returns to modern times, appearing in attire appropriate to today.

“Everything he sings is about if he had lived today, he would have reached a whole nation with mass communication,” Barbuto said.

French came up with the idea of wearing a black T-shirt with a red star on it in his final scene, representative of the “superstar” idea, and as a contrast to the white stars on the walls of the set. French is not unfamiliar with the role; he played Judas at the Idyllwild School of the Arts in California, where he graduated with a major in Musical Theatre.

Jesus, portrayed by Brian Doig, is not new to his role either. Doig played Jesus 23 years ago in a Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre production. He also directed “Phantom” at the Playhouse last year.

Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre used to be housed in the Lake City Playhouse. Doig said it was a completely different set then, much more sparse than what Barbuto has created.

“I’ve actually played this role five times. The first time was in 1982, and this is probably the last time because I’m getting too old,” Doig said. “It’s been fun. I don’t know that there’s a more rewarding character to play. Jesus is just an amazing guy, which goes without saying.”

Doig has met Ted Neely, who played Jesus in the movie adaptation of the play.

“I asked him if the role affected him, because it did me, and he said absolutely. It really does affect your life; it touches you on an artistic level and spiritual level,” Doig said.

Husband and wife Callie and Stu Cabe, both veteran actors, play the roles of Mary Magdalene and Pontius Pilate, respectively. It’s Callie’s first time playing Mary Magdaline. She and Stu met doing Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre and have performed together in “Superstar” before. Well-known actor-director and choreographer Roger Welch leaves a lasting impression in his role of King Herod.

There are 35 actors in the cast, and all were cast as a result of open auditions. For some it is their first show, or their first in many, many years. They all share the love of the music in the show.

“In my creative process I bring ideas to the table,” Barbuto said. “This is what I’m looking for, this is what I want. There are wonderful moments where I will ask them (the actors) this is what I see; do you feel comfortable with that, do you have an idea? So I get to massage it into something.”

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