A rock star has to deal with treacherous band mate Judas, writes Dionne Christian

People find Jesus in many places; Oliver Driver found him via an audition tape and a carefully worded letter sent from Melbourne by New Zealand actor Kristian Lavercombe.

Lavercombe, who for the past two years has been touring the world playing Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show, wrote that he would soon take a break from the musical and would welcome any opportunity, no matter how small, to be involved with Auckland Theatre Company's end-of-year musical, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Driver took one look - and a listen - to the audition tape and knew he had found Jesus. Lavercombe admits he might have been a tad disingenuous by opting to sing, from the list of choices provided for the audition, Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say), regarded as one of the more difficult songs in a show full of challenging musical numbers.

"I thought if they hear me sing this, at least they will know I really can sing."

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He says it was especially important to make a good impression, given he has spent the past few years as a "spindly, gormless-looking hunchback" and, before that, starred in ATC's The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee as the geeky Leaf Coneybear.

"It's a bit of a reach from those characters to Jesus," he chuckles, the slight Welsh lilt to his voice revealing his ancestral roots.

Cast long after the publicity shots were taken - it's a model in those early photos - Lavercombe is now working alongside nearly 40 people in the cast, chorus, musicians and backstage crew. They include musicians Julia Deans (Mary Magdalene), Laughton Kora (Judas Iscariot), Midnight Youth's Jeremy Redmore (Simon Zealotes) and former NZ Idol winner Rosita Vai (Thaddaeus) as well as opera singer Richard Green (Caiaphus) and theatre stalwarts Andrew Grainger (Pontius Pilate), Madeleine Sami (King Herod), Gareth Williams and Colleen Davis (as High Priest and Priestess), George Keenan (Thomas) and Kyle Chuen (Peter).

More used to being behind-the-scenes, former Silo artistic director Shane Bosher plays Annas. Chuckling, he says it's great to be "all care, no responsibility".

"Oh no, I don't tell Oliver 'Well, that's not what I would have done'; I just smile and think, 'Not my problem!'"

Why so many rock stars? Driver says if you're staging a rock opera why not? He and musical director Leon Radojkovic have contemporarised proceedings by individualising some musical arrangements and deciding if Jesus chose the here-and-now to come again, being the lead singer of a rock band would be the most effective way to reach the masses.

So, in this version, he's a rock star and his band arrives in Jerusalem to perform but, in the best traditions of bands everywhere, there is tension among the players. Judas has issues with the direction Jesus wants to go in, thinking not only of quitting but turning Jesus over to the authorities.

"There are quite a few people in the world who claim to be Jesus Christ and start their own cults or religious movements, but I don't think that's the right direction to go in," says Lavercombe. "I agree if he wanted any success today, opting to be a rock star would be a far better way to get in front of more people."

Driver, who agreed more than a year ago to direct the show, spent a number of months figuring out the composition of his rock band. Kora was cast early on but Driver didn't immediately assign him a role because, at one point, he thought about playing with the ages of Jesus and Judas. That saw him auditioning a number of prominent older New Zealand musicians but, he says, despite their wealth of talent no one could sing the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber music well enough.

With lyrics by Rice and music by Lloyd Webber, Jesus Christ Superstar started life in 1970 as an album - a rock opera concept recording - loosely based on the gospel accounts of the last week in the life of Jesus.

In 1971, it was staged on Broadway and has been performed around the world ever since, often stirring up dissent and debate. As Driver points out, when you stage a production with a religious figure at its heart, you are bound to risk controversy, particularly if you bring a dose of historical revisionism into the mix. Judas is portrayed as a tragic figure deeply concerned by the direction in which his friend Jesus is leading his disciples.

"We're approaching it as a story about a man struggling with some very intense issues and emotions, especially when he discovers what is going to happen to him and that his betrayer is his friend. I keep trying to go back to that side of things, the psychology of the characters."

Lavercombe admits he had a "storybook" idea of Jesus but since his casting has read and watched many more books and documentaries to gain a greater understanding of the possible truths behind the Biblical stories.

He now sees Jesus as a more complex political and religious figure who faced incredible challenges. For Lavercombe, it has made Jesus more interesting to play than a one-dimensional saintly figure.

Driver and set designer John Verryt want the show to happen all around the audience, which doesn't get to simply sit back and watch. A series of boardwalks has been constructed around the walls of Q so actors perform at floor level as well as in the balconies, often running and jumping the length and breadth of the theatre.

"It's one thing to sing when you're standing still, but in this I have to run round and dance and suddenly I'm puffed, so it makes it all the more difficult," says Lavercombe.

"When you're spending up to eight hours a day in rehearsals, it's important to pace yourself, to keep something in reserve and really look after yourself."

What: Jesus Christ Superstar
Where and when: Q Theatre, October 30-November 30