For the first time since its 1991 renovation, the Topeka Performing Arts Center is producing a musical.
The show is “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a religious rock opera that will require a vocally powerful cast and an even more creative director.
Widge Yager will direct the March performance. Walking into the empty TPAC theater Wednesday, she began to fill the massive space with ambitious ideas.
Thoughts on choirs, props, costumes and lighting poured out as Yager sat in an empty row of chairs, and with each idea, she interjected a warm laugh — appearing not at all worried about the daunting task before her.
“I’m probably most excited that it’s a fundraiser more than anything,” she said. “I think we’ve found a niche where we’re not stepping on somebody else’s toes.”
After budget cuts earlier in the year, Yager said, TPAC board members realized they needed another fundraiser in 2018 to continue normal operations, so they began brainstorming ideas.
Yager said she was sitting on her couch watching television in September when she saw NBC would televise a live showing of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Easter Sunday.
“And I went, ‘Whoo!’ ” Yager exclaimed, raising her arms in excitement. “And I began to think, ‘What if we did it the weekend before?’ And we used local talent on our stage — why couldn’t we just attach on to that star?”
Board members approved the production at their November meeting, said Larry Gawronski, the director of TPAC.
“We’re just so excited right now,” Gawronski said. “It’s been a couple of months in the works, but we’ve secured the rights for the show, and it’s going to be a mix of an amateur and professional cast. People will audition for it, and it’s going to be a really fantastic production.”
Yager said the timeliness was too convenient to pass up and, given that the show is all singing, thought it would present a new opportunity for potential cast members who never have been in a musical before.
“You still have to be a performer,” Yager said, “but maybe you’re in the church choir and you have a fabulous voice, but you’ve never felt comfortable going to audition for ‘The Sound of Music’ because you have to have the dialogue. Well, come sing.”
“Jesus Christ Superstar” tells the story of the last week of Jesus’s life through the Gospels’ accounts. The story begins with the preparation of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and ends with his crucifixion.
Auditions will be 7 p.m. Jan. 8 and 9 at TPAC, and the show will be performed March 23-24, the weekend before Palm Sunday.
When choosing the cast, Yager said her decision will be based primarily on the vocals, and a handful of characters with solos will require a powerful voice.
“As a director, I’m always surprised by the quality of talent that we have in Topeka,” Yager said. “I’m always blown away because you think, ‘I could have cast this five different ways.’ There’s just so much talent to choose from. But also as a director, you don’t know who’s going to show up until they walk through that door.”
Yager, who has directed, performed and choreographed shows for more than two decades, said she has been involved in more than 200 shows. She has performed at the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., and the Columbian Theatre in Wamego, but she said TPAC has always held a special place for her.
“I was one of the very first dancers to ever dance on that stage,” Yager said, remembering the grand reopening in 1991. “And before they converted the theater, I was Peter Pan on that stage. That was one of my favorite roles.”
Yager credits these memories with her fondness for the arts center and said she is excited to be part of TPAC’s next milestone.
Contact reporter Savanna Maue at (785) 295-5621 or @CJFoodFun or @SavannaMaue on Twitter.