There’s a palpable level of excitement in the voice of veteran director-producer Ron Kellum when he talks about his upcoming production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre.
“I’ve never been more in awe of talent than this casting,” Kellum beams. “I’m proud of the Paramount and what they’re doing.”
Kellum is referring to the Paramount’s announcement Monday of the musical and its all-black cast — a rare occurrence in musical theater, Kellum says, but one that he joyously advocates.
“When they called me a year-and-a-half ago and threw this idea out there, it was one of the most authentic conversations about a [theatrical production] I’ve ever had,” said Kellum, whose directing credits include regional productions of the Broadway hits “The Color Purple,” “A Chorus Line” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” As an actor he has toured nationally in “Aida” and “Chicago,” and his Broadway credits include “Chicago” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” He most recently directed Cirque du Soleil’s “Kooza,” and various professional sports productions including the 2017 NFL Pro Bowl halftime show.
“The idea of an all-black ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ — and this has nothing to do with how ‘Hamilton’ made casting diversity vogue — allows us to tell this incredible story through a new lens.
“I’m not going to reinvent ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ” Kellum continued. “I’m going to absolutely protect the integrity of the Andrew Lloyd Webber [and Tim Rice] musical. It’s not going to be a hip-hop version of the musical. But I will use a cast filled with glorious voices and experiences to help tell the story.”
Those glorious voices include that of Mykal Kilgore, who plays Judas, Kellum said. “Mykal is an unbelievable singer, and the way he sings the role will be soul-stirring.”
The show, written as an edgy rock opera, will feature a “soulful” 14-piece rock orchestra, through which you” will hear a Hammond organ, more reminiscent of Sunday service, or horns, more reminiscent of Earth, Wind and Fire,” Kellum said.
“Directing for theater is much tougher than one of those big [sports extravaganzas] because there is pageantry in the halftime show; it’s a spectacle,” Kellum said. “It’s not storytelling. Theater is all about telling a story to every person in every seat out there.”
In addition to Kilgore, the Paramount cast includes Broadway veteran Destan Owens as Jesus, Felicia Boswell as Mary Magdalene, Rufus Bonds Jr. as Pontius Pilate, Avionce Hoyles as King Herod and Lorenzo Rush Jr. as Caiaphas.
“We can do these [musicals] and make them fresh again,” Kellum continued. “I’ve been doing theater pretty much all my life; I got my Equity card when I was 12 years old. The thing that was always troubling to me was that there were always shows for white girls and white guys. When a black show came around [laughing] we all ran to the ‘Dreamgirls’ auditions. There were so few opportunities for black actors. But this is not a racial thing. It’s about opportunity. If arts can keep expanding this way, opening the door to folks who feel [a show] doesn’t reflect who they are or reflect their community, then I’m humbled and honored to be part of that change. … Here is an opportunity to experience this [particular] show in a way you never thought possible, and that’s true for the community, regardless of race.”
When asked what Jesus might say of this new production (were he in the audience, of course), Kellum replied, with a chuckle: “Jesus would be really happy! He would say, ‘Keep telling my story and keep telling it in many different ways, but always come back to the truth of my story — about love and inclusion.’ ”
“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs April 19-May at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. For show times and tickets, visit paramountaurora.com.