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Only one Superstar in this theater group

/ 07:20 AM March 25, 2018

‘SHOCKINGLY EDGY’ Jeffrey Solomon plays Jesus in the rock musical in 2017. —PHOTOS COURTESY OF AMBASSADORS OF ARTS

They hone their craft with faith in their hearts and “Heaven On Their Minds.”

On the Wednesday night before this year’s Palm Sunday, an amateur troupe shuffles up a long flight of stairs to the top floor of the barangay hall in Tuktukan, Taguig City.

The theater group, composed entirely of Taguig residents — some still in school uniforms, others just arrived from work — runs through their last rehearsal of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the rock opera classic composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Tim Rice.

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“This is it. It’s showtime,” says Rocky Reyes, the president of the group, Ambassadors of Arts (AOA), in a pep talk before the troupe’s final run-through.

They had been rehearsing for this show at the barangay hall every week for two months. AOA, whose members are mostly students, some still in elementary, has been staging the musical at no charge every Lenten season since 2005.

This year’s cast includes a 23-year-old former criminology student, John Asuncion, who plays Jesus. Mary Magdalene is 17-year-old senior high school student Gyana Bitancor. Reyes, who plays Caiaphas, is a psychology student and part-time events host, magician and ventriloquist.

“We have fans in the community who always watch the musical, so every year our director changes the way he attacks it. Every year we upgrade it,” Reyes tells the Inquirer.

The 1970s musical, which was also made into a movie, is loosely based on the Gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion—but told through wailing electric guitars and lyrics that viewers may find either refreshingly grounded or shockingly edgy—even profane—for a Holy Week show.

But unlike the original, AOA’s version goes for a more contemplative approach: despite the superstar flashiness, it remains a story about the quest for holiness.

“Entertainment might be the first objective, but toward the end, it’s a recollection,” says Bro. Noli Nunez Alojado, a preacher who is also AOA’s founder, director and choreographer.

Self-emptying love

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“Sometimes the audience even wonders, ‘Should we clap or not?’ because some scenes aren’t appropriate for clapping,” he adds. “We want them to go home having realized the self-emptying love of God.”

Alojado’s history with the musical runs deep—and gets complicated. He was a young artist at Saint Anne Theater and Dance Co., Taguig’s first theater group, when it staged its own adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar.

He was unsettled by the liberties it took in its reimagining of Judas Iscariot, he recalls. The rock opera casts the betrayer in a sympathetic light—a disenchanted follower who (after his suicide scene in the 1973 film) reappears in a tasselled white jumpsuit and asks Christ: “Every time I look at you I don’t understand / why you let the things you did get so out of hand?”

“I told myself, given the time and opportunity, I would stage my own Jesus Christ Superstar,” Alojado says. That’s precisely what he did 13 years ago at Barangay Santa Ana, Taguig, in what became the first of AOA’s 32 performances of the production so far.

The group makes use of prerecorded music and stays faithful to nearly every song from the opera. However, the AOA version enhances the final act with more scenes of Christ’s suffering, while the repertoire has been expanded for the Resurrection—with Celine Dion’s “The Prayer.”

“Now, the audience sees in the ending how Jesus was tortured, ridiculed, spat at,” Reyes says. While the original ends with a disco-era Judas surrounded by a chorus of angels, AOA’s ending, Alojado says, “leaves everyone in tears.”

SUFFERING WRIT LARGE More scenes of Christ’s torture in AOA’s production.

Sweeping backdrops

The production’s technical aspect has also been improving since the first show in 2005.  A giant LED screen, for example, was added to the stage last year to project sweeping backdrops.

Now with 79 members, AOA remains a community-based talent pool composed of neighbors, classmates and coworkers, but Alojado says recruits from outside Taguig are welcome.

The group relies mainly on donations from Taguig-based patrons to fund the shows, which cost around P100,000 per year to produce.

This year, AOA’s first staging of Jesus Christ Superstar was held on March 24 at an open-air parking area beside the barangay hall at Ibayo-Tipas, Taguig.

It will have one more performance on the night of Holy Tuesday, March 27, 7:30 p.m., at the Taguig City Hall grounds.

For Erwin Mendiola, Barangay Ibayo-Tipas chair, the homegrown production—a hit with residents—has also been an opportunity to “uplift their spiritual well-being.” This is why AOA is keeping it free of charge despite the high-caliber performances.

“This show is our panata (religious vow). All of us had been taught by AOA for free, so we are sharing [the production] with others for free as well,” Reyes says.

“We only have one requirement when you join: discipline,”  Alojado says. “We believe that everybody can dance and act; we will show you how. [But] we cannot teach you discipline; it comes from you.”

Spiritual exercise

This discipline must also be forged by the teachings of the persona at the center of the play, he adds. Becoming Christlike may be a tall order, but Alojado tries to make it simple for his artistas: Don’t lie, don’t steal.

AOA’s acting workshops thus double as a spiritual exercise, drawing “attention to the presence of God in the soul.”

The integration of Christian formation and theater work has since borne fruit in the form of young community leaders: Reyes, for example, once served as a Sangguniang Kabataan official. Asuncion, who plays Jesus, is currently engaged in the local government’s youth and sports development programs.

After Holy Week, when the shows are over,  AOA conducts leadership training seminars coupled with acting workshops in Taguig schools—

again, for free.

Many out-of-school youths who joined AOA have been weaned from vice and juvenile delinquency, according to Board Member Rosalie Valler.

“I was a troublemaker when I first joined [in 2008], ” recalls John Dexter Valler, who is cast as an alternate Judas this year. “But in AOA, I learned to stay humble even after earning praise for achieving something.”

But then again, “we’re not here to become famous. We just want to help people understand [God],” Reyes says.

“In this company, nobody’s a superstar,” Alojado adds. “Only Jesus Christ.”

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TAGS: Ambassadors of Arts, AOA, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rocky Reyes, Theater Group
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