Music Theatre for Young People has engaged in non-traditional casting before, and it has produced “Jesus Christ Superstar” before in its 20-year history in the Kansas City area. But not since moving to town in 1991 has director Cary Danielson Pandzik cast young women as apostles, including the leading role of Judas Iscariot.
That’s just what she did for the upcoming production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1970 rock opera. Shows are set for Friday and Saturday at Avila University’s Goppert Theatre.
The show will feature a 47-member cast of performers from around the metro area, including a 15-member youth choir and 20 musicians from the Kansas City Youth Symphony. “Superstar” will be produced in a rock-concert style, with modern costuming, minimal scenery and the musicians onstage, rather than in the orchestra pit.
Tony Carrubba, a junior at St. James Academy in Lenexa, will portray Jesus of Nazareth, while Blue Valley North junior Paris Naster takes on the role of his betrayer, Judas.
“It’s a difficult show vocally, especially for Tony and Paris,” said Pandzik.
“Part of why we are having Judas played by a female is that it sits almost in the core of a woman’s voice,” said Julie Danielson, who is Cary Danielson Pandzik’s daughter and the company’s artistic and musical director.
Four other young women will portray other apostles. They function as a sort of chorus, and they are not given specific roles.
Naster said this is not the first time she has portrayed a traditionally male role onstage.
“When I was 11, I played 10-year-old Tommy in the Who’s ‘Tommy,’
” she said. “But because he is deaf, dumb and blind, all I had to do was pull my hair back into a hat.”
With the MTYP production of “Superstar,” however, Judas will be portrayed not as the man of the New Testament, but as a woman.
“I will not play Judas as a man,” Naster said. “I’ll be playing a female.”
Naster said she thinks it will add something different and interesting to the play, as, for instance, when Judas questions the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
“I think it will have that edge of cattiness,” she said.
Apart from the gender bending, Naster said, “the most difficult thing will be … trying to find a different point of view for the character. It’s hard to capture his anger. It’s not hate, but misunderstanding of what is going on with Jesus.
“Even though they (the audience) know I’m the bad guy, I hope they can see why I make those choices and empathize.”
Both Naster and Carrubba have played leading roles in their own schools’ musicals, and MTYP prides itself on gathering the most talented performers from around the metro area. More than a dozen veterans of the company are now working on Broadway, Pandzik said.
MTYP shows are produced in a highly compressed, one-week schedule, during school breaks.
“Regular high school musicals have an eight- to 10-week rehearsal process, and if we would do that, they would have to miss so much. These kids are busy with other things,” Pandzik said. “So we say we want you for one week. Give us your constant attention for 12 hours a day, and then we put on a show. …
“It’s amazing that they memorize things so quickly. I don’t know how they do it, but they always do.”
“You set high expectations, and the kids want to meet them,” said Julie Danielson.
Besides, Pandzik said, it’s good training for the professional theater world. One MTYP veteran, for instance, had one week to step into a leading role in “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway.
“After you do a show in one week, it shows you how much you can do in a week,” said Carrubba.
In addition to winter- and spring-break musicals, MTYP operates a series of summer camps for children ages 12-18, including “Broadway at Baker” at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan. The shows are staged at various theaters around town. For more information, visitmtyp.org.