At Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School, Hartwick College and the Colonial Little Theatre in Johnstown, Kent Benwell’s stage performances would usually earn him some laughs.
But this weekend, in what will be his debut at the Schenectady Light Opera Company, Benwell will be hoping to elicit a deeper, more emotional response from the audience in the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“I didn’t really know that much about the show, but I knew it would be different and I liked that challenge,” said Benwell, who is playing the title character. “It’s a serious role and yeah, that is different from what I’m used to.”
The show is being directed by Rotterdam’s Trish Scott-Dembling. A longtime choreographer at SLOC, Scott-Dembling is making her directorial debut with the company, and was thrilled to have a talented actor/singer like Benwell show up for auditions.
“He’s brand new to SLOC, but he’s done a lot of stuff in Johnstown,” Scott-Dembling said of Benwell. “He’s a funny guy, so most of the stuff he’s done is comedic. But even though this might be a bit more serious than some of the shows he’s been in before, he has this beautiful voice and he’s so professional. He brings a real human side to a larger-than-life character.”
“Jesus Christ Superstar,” the creation of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, debuted on Broadway in September of 1971 and ran through June of 1973. It starred Jeff Fenholt as Jesus, Ben Vereen as Judas and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. Loosely based on the life of Jesus Christ – in particular the final week – the musical is sung throughout, with no spoken dialogue. It was nominated for five Tonys, including Best Original Score, but lost to “Follies.”
“The story is told entirely through the tunes,” said Scott-Dembling, who started choreographing during her senior year at Mohonasen in 2005. “It’s one song right after another, and the music is beautiful.”
Sharing the stage with Benwell will be Schalmont High School’s Veronica Lybrand as Mary Magdalene and Nicholas Cotrupi as Judas. Also in the cast are James Alexander as Caiaphas and Shawn Olander-Hahn as Pilate.
“There are 24 people in the cast, and we do have a couple of older actors, but not many,” said Scott-Dembling. “Our Judas, Nick Cotrupi, has a great rock voice, and our Mary Magdalene is quite young but wonderful. Veronica is an amazing vocalist.”
While the two signature songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar” are sung by Mary (“I Don’t Know How to Love Him”) and Judas (“Superstar”), Benwell does get plenty of opportunity to show off his singing ability. His previous musical credits include “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Legally Blonde” in Johnstown, and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Helly Dolly!” at BH-BL.
“I didn’t know that much about ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at first, but I looked into it and I did some reading,” said Benwell, who majored in theater and business at Hartwick. “When I auditioned I was going to be happy with any role. There wasn’t much going on out here in Johnstown, so it was like, ‘What’s the next show?’ I like to keep busy, and this does seem like a great show for me to do. It’s been a lot of fun so far.”