Stage & Dance

Actor takes Jesus from church to stage in SummerFest’s ‘Superstar’

Darian Sanders as Jesus and Navji Dixon as Mary rehearsed a scene of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Darian Sanders as Jesus and Navji Dixon as Mary rehearsed a scene of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

The temple scene in Jesus Christ Superstar shows commerce and debauchery in the church that’s suddenly interrupted by Christ turning over the merchants’ wares and admonishing them, “My temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!”

He then laments that his time on earth is almost through and no one seems to understand what he has been trying to teach them: “I’ve tried for three years; seems like 30,” he sings.

Darian Sanders, the man playing the title role in SummerFest’s production of Superstar, says it’s a key scene for him as an actor and as a Christian.

“That has probably hit me the most, because him walking in and seeing everything that they are doing in the temple, and having righteous anger — that’s one thing I love in the way Wes (director Wesley Nelson) is directing this, is he wants to look at Jesus being a man, coming to Earth,” Sanders says. “A lot of other productions I’ve seen in my study of Jesus Christ Superstar, a lot of other Jesuses are very stoic and almost majestic in their walk. So to tap into the aspect of being a man, there’s a lot of things that I am doing in the production that are very unique to our production, and I’m excited about it because it shows that Jesus was in the world, but not of the world.

“I’m excited to bring people a fresh new look to what Jesus is and is about.”

It’s so awesome to think about Jesus and think you’re delivering a story and you’re bringing a message to somebody.

Darian Sanders, Jesus in SummerFest’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

SummerFest was eager to bring the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical back to Lexington’s summer theater stage. The show became one of the Lexington Shakespeare Festival’s biggest hits in 2004.

“We have always had people asking us to do that show again,” says Nelson, who also is artistic director of SummerFest, the organization that succeeded the Shakespeare Festival as the primary summer outdoor theater presenter in Lexington.

A major difference between this production and the previous Superstar was that the earlier production scrambled to find a singer and actor who could play the part, finally finding Louisvillian Mike Fryman in a special audition that the Herald-Leader covered in story headlined “Shakespeare Festival still looking for Jesus.”

When Nelson chose Superstar for this year, he knew exactly who he wanted.

“Because that role is vocally so demanding and unique in the way it’s written, ... I met with Darian early on to see if he was interested and on board for it,” Nelson says. “He is very gifted and has a strong voice, but is also a wonderful actor and mover. I’m not sure people are used to seeing Jesus dancing. But he will be in our production.”

Sanders was up for the challenge, even though he is early in his theatrical career. He took an interest in musical theater while he was a student at the University of Kentucky, but he didn’t get on stage until a couple years ago, first in the UK Opera Theatre’s It’s A Grand Night for Singing concert, and then the first production by The Lexington Theatre Company, the 2015 Concert with the Stars, which put him on stage with Broadway performers Jonathan Groff and Laura Bell Bundy, joining Groff in a rendition of the title tune from Hair.

It is not that Sanders has never performed before. He is an alumnus of the UK Marching Band and has had some big moments singing the national anthem at Kentucky football and basketball games. But recently he has gotten more and more into musical theater, just wrapping up a run as Seaweed in The Woodford Theatre’s production of Hairspray, a role he says gave him a boost of confidence going into Superstar.

At the beginning of this year, he joined the staff of Broadway Christian Church as a worship minister. So Jesus isn’t just another part to Sanders.

“It’s so awesome to think about Jesus and think you’re delivering a story and you’re bringing a message to somebody,” he says. “Maybe somebody sees the play and thinks, ‘Wow, this guy took on all this, just for me. And even though I say I don’t believe in him, he still chose to do this for me and love me, so maybe there’s something else I need to figure out.”

Sanders is aware that not all Christians are as excited about Superstar. Over the decades since it debuted, first as a concept album in 1970, it has been criticized by Christians for a host of perceived sins, including a sympathetic portrayal of Judas, who betrays Jesus in the story; the lack of a resurrection; mixing Biblical and contemporary culture; and the portrayal of Jesus as a human figure experiencing doubt and anger.

He focuses on the upside of putting Jesus in such a public forum as a major local theater festival in a public park.

“To have an avenue to even bring Jesus to people in this way, that’s what I’m locking into, and that’s what I’m rejoicing about,” Sanders says. “Whereas a lot of people might not set foot in a church or even talk to a Christian, they’ll come and watch a Broadway show. And for them to get truth by watching, that is awesome.”

Rich Copley: 859-231-3217, @LexGoKY

If you go

SummerFest 2016

Jesus Christ Superstar July 7-10, 21-24

As You Like It July 14-17

Showtimes: 8:45 p.m.

Where: Woodland Park, 601 E. High St.

Tickets: $10 general admission, $15 with chair rental.