Summer Lyric Theatre (SLT) was one of the first theater companies to return to live performances in Orleans Parish with a splendid presentation of Songs for a New World, done in the courtyard of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Museum last month.
They followed that up a few weeks later with the Rodgers and Hammerstein revue A Grand Night for Singing performed in SLT’s traditional home of Tulane’s Dixon Hall; unfortunately, I had to miss this show as I was out of town during its run.
I don’t plan to miss SLT’s final production of the season, however, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which opens on July 15 in Dixon Hall. This 50th anniversary celebration of JCS will be the first full professional indoor production in Orleans Parish since COVID hit. And by “full professional production” I mean it will feature a cast of over 35 singers and dancers plus a live band on stage.
Originally slotted to play in Tulane’s Yulman Football Stadium as recently as April, this version of the iconic rock opera went through many changes, sometimes radical ones, in a relatively short time frame as Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s reopening mandates evolved on a week-to-week basis.
I recently posed some questions to the show’s three leads, Prentiss E. Mouton (Jesus), Alex Stone (Judas), and Chase Kamata (Mary Magdalene), as well as choreographer Diane Lala who, when she’s not working with SLT as a director and/or choreographer, is Professor of Musical Theatre at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music. These are edited excerpts from their responses which they each submitted to me individually.
What have you been up to the past 15 months?
Prentiss E. Mouton: I had just moved to New York in January before the pandemic started and ended up having to come back home to Memphis. I got to see and spend a lot of time with family and friends I don’t see nearly as much as I should or would like to.
Diane Lala: Teaching dance and the performing arts has been particularly challenging during the pandemic. I needed to become a technology expert just to teach what I used to teach by turning on music. I had to set up sound, TV, Zoom connection, mic (so I could be heard under a mask) and make sure I had them all plugged into the right places. I also found myself needing to be a cheerleader for our students to keep them positive when they were having a tough time with the whole situation.
Alex Stone: A whole host of adventures! I was up in NYC when the pandemic hit so I stayed with my folks in Virginia for a while, hiked a lot, did many outdoorsy trips, adopted some kittens, moved back to NYC, read a book, had my heart broken, worked at a school, the usual pandemic story. In June, I wrapped up a production of [Jason Robert Brown’s] The Last Five Years in D.C. which was recorded by a fantastic team that made the whole show look gorgeous. With that project, on top of Jesus Christ Superstar, it’s a blessing to feel the slow return of the live theatre industry.
Chase Kamata: During the absence of theater, I turned my attention towards another passion of mine — visual arts. I was blessed to have such a supportive community that allowed me to turn what was once a hobby into a profession. I am so grateful to those who have continued to support the arts during this period.
How does it feel to be participating in Orleans Parish’s first full indoor production since the beginning of the pandemic closed everything down?
Kamata: It. Feels. AMAZING!!! I never want to live in a world without theater again. There is absolutely no business like it. I learned that theater was the primary source of joy in my life as I explored other occupations when theater went dark. I felt goosebumps as I sat in my rehearsal chair on Day One [for JCS], surrounded by an array of talent and passion.
Mouton: It’s honestly surreal. None of us could have guessed we would be out this long, but it’s just like riding a bike. You never really forget.
Stone: Joyous. I adore New Orleans and experiencing its beauty. The city is a crucible of music and art culture, and to not have the freedom to express that love safely for more than a year is stifling. My hope is the scale of this production will encourage others to push and fight for live theatre again nowadays, when we all need an escape.
Lala: It feels AWESOME! It is so wonderful to be back in the same space with other artists. Musical Theatre is based on collaboration, and, while doable on Zoom, that is not why any of us got into this in the first place.
What’s it like to be back working with such a large cast and the live on-stage band?
Stone: The feels didn’t hit until we had our first full music rehearsal with everyone in the cast. That joy and rush of passion and love shared by everyone in the room was something I honestly had forgotten. I could not be more grateful for this opportunity to work with an exceptional team in a vibrant, steamy city.
Kamata: Sheer joy. These have been difficult times for the world and especially for our country. I’ve always felt that the theater community serves as proof that we can be united in our diversity. I love that as I step into a cast, there are people from a variety of creeds, races, genders, sexualities, and personas…and yet we come together and produce something beautiful. Experiencing this has always brought me peace during times of turmoil. This particular cast is so special because it is one of the most diverse casts that I’ve been a part of. Joy!
Mouton: COVID aside, it’s just nice to be around and meet new people again. Those of us who do this for a living are so used to constantly being on the go, seeing new places and meeting new people, that it was so strange to not have that during the pandemic.
How has COVID and the change in venues affected the rehearsal process, and how did you adapt?
Lala: Working in Dixon Hall was always fine because we had space and good airflow. Everyone is so excited to be back!
Kamata: Oh, I’m still adapting…singing with masks is a challenge. I was a bit apprehensive at the idea of performing with empty rows and seats that are reserved for social distancing, but our audience for A Grand Night for Singing, which was my first show since COVID, surprised me. If you closed your eyes, you’d never know that the theater was only partially filled. They brought such a beautiful, vibrant, and boisterous spirit.
Mouton: From my perspective, not much at all. It’s very much so business as usual. Of course while being COVID compliant!
Stone: It’s not drastic honestly. You always have to sign in before rehearsal, now we just get our temperature checked too. I admire the dancers in this show the most, because of how diligent they are for always wearing their masks while kicking HIGH up to their faces and making it look easy. It is not.
If you were here in 2005, how does your COVID experience compare with your Hurricane Katrina experience?
Kamata: This question in particular was tough. During Hurricane Katrina, my family and I lost material belongings….houses, furniture, clothing, etc. Material things can be replaced, but not life, not human life. COVID, unfortunately, has taken the life of my uncle, a dear friend of the theater community, and loved ones of those near and dear to me. It was tough. It is tough, but we move on and we carry on the legacy no matter the loss. I personally feel that souls never die; their energies will always be with us.
What are you most looking forward to on opening night?
Mouton: It’s the same for me with this as it was with Songs for a New World. I look forward to performing for and feeling the energy of a live audience. Especially after their not being able to attend a live performance in so long.
Lala: I am looking forward to watching the performers’ faces the first time they hear the applause.
Kamata: I’m looking forward to the overall experience of creating art with the immensely talented cast of Jesus Christ Superstar and sharing it with the beautiful and supportive theatergoers. Let me tell you, there is some SAAAANGIN’ in this show!
Stone: The audience’s reactions. Not just applause, but whether they find the material moving, humorous, impressive, creative, etc. To hear people laugh, cry and cheer means that not only is someone watching the story we are telling, but that they are connected and engaged with it. Letting their minds escape for a while…but not too long since the run time is just 90 minutes 😉
Jesus Christ Superstar plays July 15-25, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets & Box Office information can be found at https://liberalarts.tulane.edu/summer-lyric-theatre/events-tickets/tickets-box-office-info