“Jesus Christ Superstar” showcases PMT’s bid to become Pittsburgh’s off-Broadway destination

By Sharon Eberson

Ken Gargaro makes the bold statement that Jesus Christ Superstar in the West End will “inaugurate a new chapter in the history of Pittsburgh Musical Theater.”

His own relationship with the show goes back nearly four decades, including the first full season of Gargaro Productions, now PMT. The company’s founder staged his own adaptation of the Webber-Rice musical at the Fulton Theater, soon to be the Byham, in 1992.

In 2022, Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Jesus Christ Superstar is on the move for the first time, from the Byham to PMT’s Gargaro Theater. The rock opera arrives in the West End with changes necessitated by performing an epic story in a smaller space and a technological boost responsible for that “new chapter” Gargaro has in mind.

“This is an inaugural production for Pittsburgh Musical Theater,” Gargaro repeated. ‘It inaugurates the Gargaro Theater as Pittsburgh’s off-Broadway house in the West End.’

The show marks the debut of a new $30,000 Wave sound system and $20,000 more spent on intelligent lighting that, says the company’s founder, makes PMT the most desirable 220-seat house in town.

Brecken Farrell as Jesus

Jesus Christ Superstar will have a four-week run. Starting Thursday, April 7, with David Toole as Judas, Paul Binotto as Pilate, Brecken Farrell as Jesus, Callee Miles as Mary Magdalene, J. Alex Noble as Annas, Quinn Patrick Shannon as Herod, and Andy Shin as Caiaphas.

David Toole as Judas

Toole is back home after wowing Utah crowds at the spectacular Tuacahn Amphitheater last year. This also is a homecoming for Canonsburg native Binotto, whose four-decade resume includes six Broadway shows, plus off-Broadway, regional, and national credits.

They arrive for what may be the launch of a new era for PMT’s Main Street home in the West End.

“This is the first time that Colleen [Doyno, PMT’s executive artistic director] has put a big production investment in the kind of musical we would do at the Byham,” Gargaro said. “We will always do shows at the Byham. But the consolidation of the touring industry has forced local producers to think smaller, and we can’t get the rights all the time to do shows at the Byham that would suit the business model because it’s so expensive.”

Callee Miles as Mary Magdalene

He said that bringing shows to a well-appointed theater in the West End could be the alternative “off-Broadway kind of business model” of the future.

The number of seats puts the Gargaro Theater between the Mainstage and Lester Hamburg black box at City Theatre on the South Side, which also has multiple uses in its sights. At around 110 seats, the Hamburg last year housed Kinetic Theater’s production of the three-hander Oscar & Walt.

The roadblock in the West End, for now, is accessibility. PMT, which in addition to the new systems, has undergone a sea-change of improvements in its century-old building. An elevator is in the process of being added to fix the accessibility issue.

The Jesus Christ Superstar that is opening this week can provide a showcase for the theater’s new technological possibilities.

Gargaro’s vision for the show has come a long way since the 1992 production that garnered press attention by featuring television actress Melina Kanakaredes. “It was the beginning of Gargaro Productions as a force within Pittsburgh,” he recalled.
Gargaro’s earlier sound experiment for his adaptation of “JCS” caused a stir by introducing a digital synthesizer that allowed for fewer musicians. It did not go over well with musicians, their union, or the director himself.

“I would never do it again. There is a place for synthesized music, but you can never replace live musicians,” said Gargaro, who will have a five-piece band onstage for the current production.

The show, about the last days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth leading to the Crucifixion, was born from a concept album that came to be known as The Brown Album. The original 1970 boxed set was packaged in the U.S. with a thin brown cardboard outer box – and became the first musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to be produced for the professional stage.

A fan of the album, Gargaro was inspired to approach the show’s narrative “based on what actions were taken according to the Bible.” That hasn’t changed.

“What has changed,” Gargaro said, “is the album is 52 years old, and the generation that knows and loves The Brown Album still loves the show, but there’s a whole generation out there under 30. The 30-year-olds and under don’t know the show, and that was apparent in the auditions.”

As an example, he said there were those who were tripped up by the 5-4 time signature in the song “Everything’s Alright.” “That proved my point, that I wanted to layer the sound with technology that would make the younger generation understand how cool The Brown Album was to another generation that was 21-22 when they first heard it.”

Now the challenge became how to accomplish that without changing a note or a lyric of the original songs.

A trip to Broadway provided the answer.

Gargaro went to see Moulin Rouge!, which employs 70 songs representing 160 years of music, and he left wondering, “How did they create that studio sound in a live setting that was so beautiful?”

He did some research, a donor stepped up, and that’s how the Waves sound system came to the West End.

In layman’s terms, Waves allows real-time effects to be integrated seamlessly with live performances. “So sometimes it will sound like a concert hall, sometimes like a church, sometimes like the PPG Arena … this is the type of thing they do in studio albums.”

Gargaro enlisted his friend Dave Bjornson of Hearcorp, who, between jobs for the NBA, helped devise a list of what was needed to outfit the theater and purchased the equipment for PMT. The company is now “on the verge” of hiring a sound engineer who understands the newfangled system and can incorporate Gargaro’s vision that translates into a more modern sound.

“I know the young kids in the show like it, and that’s what I was after,” Gargaro said.

His mantra to the cast and creative team has been, “Honor the past, respect the present, imagine the future.”

The traditional tableaus are still there, but there are fewer of them on a stage much smaller than the Byham’s. The Gregorian chants that “create a mystical space” are still there, part of honoring what came before.

The role of Judas, however, gets an update. Initially, Gargaro said, he presented Judas as being tormented by demons. In the 2022 version, “Judas is a victim of his own vices,” Gargaro said. There’s more – costumes have a punk edge, for example.

These were some of the solutions Ken Gargaro came up with when he asked himself, “Why is this 52-year-old show still so darn popular with those who grew up with it, and how do I make it click for a new generation?”

His answers: “It’s the greatest story ever told, and it is a great rock ‘n’ roll album. It’s timeless.”

And in Gargaro’s vision, keeping up with the latest technology is one way of ensuring it stays that way.

Pittsburgh Musical Theater presents Jesus Christ Superstar, April 7-May1 at the Gargaro Theater, 327 S. Main St. Tickets and info: https://pittsburghmusicals.com/superstar/ or (412) 456-6666

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