What would Jesus do?

At 6-feet-1-inches tall, the blond-haired, blue-eyed S. Michael Wilson might not fit the traditional image of Jesus Christ depicted in countless devotional portraits over the past couple of millennia. That Wilson considers himself to be Pagan (in a broad sense of the word) and is openly gay suggests that a few more conventions may be on their way to being shattered.

Casting Wilson in the title role of a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar over Easter weekend is just one way the Christian-based Jericho Productions is stretching the limits.

“People have certain perceptions of how Jesus should be, and this play is going to break some of those perceptions,” offers Franklin Harris, who co-founded the Asheville theater company with fellow Christian Tom Mosher in 1999.

Superstar controversy

Mounting the rock opera at all will probably push more than a few buttons, admits Harris.

“The production that we’re doing is considered — in some Christian circles — very controversial,” says Harris, who directs the opera and serves as artistic director for Jericho Productions.

The ’70s classic (with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber) tells the story of Jesus’ last seven days from the point of view of his betrayer, Judas Iscariot. The story begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and ends with the crucifixion — all in a rock-opera format which calls for few, if any, spoken words.

Just about anyone old enough to remember the ’70s will recognize the songs “Superstar,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and possibly “Could We Start Again, Please.” A rock album was released in 1970, and Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway in 1971 and in London the following year. An even broader base of fans got to see a hippie version of Christ in the 1973 film directed by Norman Jewison.

Picketers greeted the London opening, Harris notes, and 30 years later, some Christians continue to be uncomfortable with the whole concept.

For starters, Jesus Christ Superstar depicts a strong friendship between Jesus and Judas. That’s dicey, explains Harris, because some Christians prefer to view Judas as evil through and through.

But he observes, “As you and I both know, you can’t have betrayal until you have friendship.”

And then there’s Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who croons “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” after unsuccessfully coming on to Christ. Harris surmises that some Christians want to see Jesus as beyond temptation so they can be excused for their own behavior.

“Figuratively, they see him — or want to see him — as a sexless character,” Harris muses. “If you accept him as a man, then you are challenged to live the same way he did.” (Of course, Wilson notes that since he himself “isn’t into women,” that absence of temptation actually made it easier to play Jesus turning aside Mary Magdalene’s advances.)

In addition, some Christian traditionalists might also object to the portrayal of the disciples, half of whom are being played by women in this production, Harris points out.

Rising to the occasion

As recently as a few weeks ago, a Henderson County preacher denounced the North Henderson High School production of Godspell (which depicts Jesus as a clown teaching parables to his disciples) as “blasphemous,” according to the Hendersonville Times-News.

This show hasn’t escaped controversy, either. A church that had hosted other Jericho productions turned down a request to accommodate Jesus Christ Superstar, because church leaders didn’t want to risk controversy, Harris says. And one cast member quit because she didn’t like the way Mary Magdalene was portrayed.

Still, 35 thespians from around WNC jumped on board, including Willie Repoley as Judas, Geana DiCarlo as Mary Magdalene, Dan Walker as Pilate, Gary Egerer as Caiaphas, Mike Walker as Herod and Charles Pittman as Annas — plus a live band, to boot.

Wilson — who considers himself to be spiritual and “omnidenominational” — is well aware that some Christians would condemn him both for his religious beliefs and his sexual identity.

“The whole reason why Jesus was condemned and then put to death was because the people started to doubt him and basically needed something to put their judgment on,” suggests Wilson. “Why are these people still doing exactly what the Romans did to Jesus, in his name? Why have there been wars, why have there been many, many different groups … persecuted because they’re different, when what Jesus taught was not to judge anyone and to see all people as equals?”

But Wilson has nothing but kind words for his fellow cast members (most of whom are Christians) and their warm acceptance of him. (They figured out he was gay when he showed up at a rehearsal with his partner, Drew Browning.)

Harris notes that he knew Wilson was non-Christian at casting time, though only later did the director learn Wilson was openly gay. “But that wouldn’t have dissuaded us,” Harris offers.

And while Wilson doesn’t think his personal life should be problematic for audiences, he recognizes that it will affect some — though certainly not all — theatergoers.

“I think it’s also a good step for the gay community of Asheville to have someone portraying a role like this and be out of the closet and an active member of the community,” says Wilson. (At his day job, Wilson sells advertising for a gay-and-lesbian wedding registry, www.rainbowweddingnetwork.com; he’s also communications coordinator for a local gay-and-lesbian business association.)

Neither Wilson nor Harris seems surprised that, more than 30 years after Jesus Christ Superstar was launched, it still has the power to stir people’s emotions.

“We’re talking about Jesus Christ,” notes Wilson. “What is 30 years compared to 2,000? I think it has the potential to always be controversial. And it hits one of the biggest nerves in the country, which is religion.

“Our performance will at least cause people to think about their beliefs and the way they view things,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Harris thinks Jesus Christ Superstar fits Jericho Productions’ intent to be groundbreaking (though not “terribly radical”) and to present theater that’s “honest, engaging, provocative and hopeful,” while advancing some of Christianity’s truths and values — though in a nonevangelical way.

And since it is theater, after all, Harris has some other hopes for his audiences, as well.

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