Theatre Baton Rouge’s Young Actors gear up for Godspell, Jr.

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD --  Brooke Bell, center, performs in Baton Rouge Little Theater's Young Performers' rehearsal for its production of
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Brooke Bell, center, performs in Baton Rouge Little Theater's Young Performers' rehearsal for its production of "Godspell Jr" on Monday, March 4, 2013. Photo taken on Monday, March 4, 2013. MAGS OUT / INTERNET OUT / ONLINE OUT / NO SALES / TV OUT / FOREIGN OUT / LOUISIANA BUSINESS INC. OUT / GREATER BATON ROUGE BUSINESS REPORT OUT / 225 OUT / 10/12 OUT / IN REGISTER OUT / LBI CUSTOM PUBLICATIONS OUT / MANDATORY CREDIT : THE ADVOCATE/CATHERINE THRELKELD /

Both characters have power over their followers, but there’s a big difference in how they use that power. “Harold Hill was using the power for his own benefit,” Cole Roland said. “Jesus used it to benefit mankind.”

Roland played Hill in Theatre Baton Rouge’s Young Actors Program 2012 production of The Music Man, Jr. He’s back this year to take on the lead role in the program’s production of Godspell, Jr.

And that role is Jesus.

This can be overwhelming for any actor, but even more so for a 13-year-old.

Being on stage isn’t bothersome. Area audiences will recognize Roland from his most recent leading roles as Amahl in Opera Louisiane’s 2011 production of Amahl and the Night Visitors and, of course, as the con man Hill in Music Man, Jr.

That production was staged when the theater was known as Baton Rouge Little Theater. It’s now Theatre Baton Rouge.

But the name change doesn’t change the Young Actors Program or its annual productions. Roland once again will stand as a main character before an audience on the stage in the Studio Theatre, previously known as the Second Stage.

And he’ll portray Jesus.

“This is a big character,” Roland said. “And Jesus is a hard character to play, because you can read in the Bible about what he did, but you don’t get an idea of how he was.”

That’s where things get a little overwhelming. How does an actor approach Jesus’ personality? “I think he has a sense of humor,” Jack Lampert said. “I think the show is written to show his sense of humor, and he’s the ringmaster for what is going on.” This is one reason cast members will wear clown costumes, a tradition for this show as it draws from various theatrical traditions, including clowning, pantomime, charades, acrobatics and vaudeville. Lampert is theater’s education director. He also is director of this musical and heads the Young Actors Program, which performs musicals from Musical Theatre International’s Broadway Junior Collection.

The company is one of the world’s leading theatrical licensing agencies. It began its junior collection in 1994 to bring classic and musical theater to elementary and school-age students.

“The junior musicals cut out a few songs to make it shorter for the kids,” Lampert said. “But most of the songs that everyone knows are still in this show.”

This includes “Day by Day,” which reached No. 13 on the Billboard pop singles chart in the summer of 1972.

Godspell was written by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak. It opened in the off Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre on May 17, 1971, and became one of the longest-running off-Broadway musicals before making its Broadway debut in June 1976. The musical is based on parables from the Gospel of Matthew set to modern music with lyrics primarily from traditional hymns.

The score includes “Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord,” “Learn Your Lessons Well,” “All For The Best,” “All Good Gifts,” “Turn Back, O Man” and “By My Side.”

“The story takes you up to the crucifixion,” Lampert said.

Which brings up the character of Judas. There are only two main characters in this show, and the other starts out as John the Baptist then morphs into Judas. That character is played by Matt Miyagi, who was an ensemble member in Playmakers of Baton Rouge’s 2011 production of Godspell, Jr. Meaning, Miyagi knows the songs and the story. But now he steps on stage as Judas.

Judas, the disciple whose name is forever synonymous with the word “traitor” after betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. “This is a big role, too,” Miyagi said. “And in Godspell, Judas is jealous of Jesus and always in competition with him.”

Though Roland and Miyagi will stand in the forefront, they won’t be the only actors in the spotlight. “I was looking for something that was more of an ensemble piece, something that would give all of the actors a chance to be on the stage throughout the play,” Lampert said. “Godspell is perfect for that. The ensemble is always on stage, and different actors are highlighted during each song.”

This is one of the Young Actors Program’s missions: providing performance opportunities for young people between ages 7 and 18.

And through this program, Roland has been given an opportunity to play Jesus, whose teachings continue to change lives. “It’s still difficult to figure out how to play him,” Roland said. “There are times when something is happening, and I’m standing there like this.”

His expression is serious.

“And I shouldn’t be doing that,” Roland said.

“You’re right,” Lampert said. “You need to be smiling and laughing.”

“I’ll just do what Jack tells me to do,” Roland said.

For in the end, it is the message that counts most.

“The teachings of Jesus’ parables are still relevant today,” Miyagi said. “They tell us how we should treat one another, and I believe we should follow them.”

Following them day by day.