BWW Interviews: TETELESTAI Rises Up Again for Five Columbus Shows

Russ Nagy recalls going to the Lakewood Civic Auditorium in Cleveland in 1971 and being blown away by one of the first performances of a new musical called GODSPELL.

"I remember the guy playing Jesus coming out in a Superman t-shirt with a clown's face and the whole audience going 'Whoa!'" Nagy says of the original version of Berea native John-Michael Tebelak's Passion Play.

The original version of GODSPELL ended with the resurrection scene but it was later removed from the show when it reached Broadway. Oddly enough, the resurrection was conspicuously absent in Broadway's two most popular musical versions of the Passion Play, GODSPELL and Andrew Lloyd Webber's JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

Frustrated by that, Nagy and his brother Joel decided to write TETELESTAI, a contemporary musical about the trial, execution and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for the Upper Arlington Lutheran Church youth group to perform.

"(In the Seventies,) we were going 'JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is awesome ... but where's the resurrection?' GODSPELL is being produced on Broadway. Why is there no resurrection?'" says Nagy, who composed the music while Joel wrote the script. "If you take a play and knock off the ending, is it as a good of a play? If we didn't see how the whole thing ended, Romeo and Juliet would just end up (as a happy couple). They have to commit suicide together or the whole play doesn't make sense.

"Without the resurrection, the story of the Passion is just another historical tragedy. For us, the story of Jesus Christ is not a tragedy. We thought it'll be a one-shot deal but at least ours will have a resurrection in it."

That one-shot deal turned into something much, much bigger than Nagy predicted. TETELESTAI, which means "It is finished" in Greek, continues on with no end in sight.

The Columbus cast is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. After road shows March 29-30 in Anderson, Ind., the musical will be performed April 4-6 at Upper Arlington Lutheran Church (3500 Mill Run in Hilliard), April 13 at Peace Lutheran Church (455 Clark State Road in Gahanna) and April 18 at Journey Church in Dublin Community Recreation Center (5600 Post Road in Dublin).

The Cleveland cast of TETELESTAI wraps up its season with a series of performances April 4-6 at St. Patrick Church (313 North DePeyster St. in Kent), April 11-13 at Ridgewood United Methodist Church (6330 Ridge Road in Parma) and April 17-18 at Benedictine High School (2900 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Cleveland).

Nagy, who originally composed just eight songs for the first run, is constantly surprised the show's longevity. After they finished their scheduled shows in 1975, they were approached to do shows in Beaver Falls, Pa. and then Fredericksburg, Va.

"Before we knew it, we were actually touring with this musical that nothing going for it but six or eight songs with folk guitars," Nagy says. "I never expected, in a million years, it'd be performed more than once or twice.

"The story of the Passion has universal spiritual magnetism. There's a magnet in people's lives that makes them want to hear about something bigger than themselves, that applies to them and that matters in a positive way. We keep doing it and people keep getting touched by it."

Over its four decades, TETELESTAI has constantly changed its look, its sound and its personnel. Ironically, it was a bankruptcy of a JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR national touring company that transformed the look of TETELESTAI.

In the beginning, the show rented much of its equipment. Its supplier informed Nagy all the SUPERSTAR equipment had been impounded in Columbus and they were looking for someone to purchase the equipment for at a fraction of the cost to pay off some of the company's debts. A group of donors helped TETELESTAI purchase most of that defunct touring company's equipment.

"We got everything: light trees, dimmer packs, set pieces, amplifiers and instruments (from that sale)," Nagy says. "To this day, we have road cases that still say SUPERSTAR on them."

Throughout the years, the majority of the cast are area high school students, many with limited acting experience. Among the show's alumni are:

* The late playwright Scott McPherson, who wrote the play MARVIN'S ROOM. McPherson's play was made into a movie that starred Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Diane Keaton;

*Brian Fullen, who has played drums for Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, and Peter Frampton;

*and Kelly Monroe Kullberg, author of the book 'Finding God at Harvard' and founder of The Veritas Forum.

For actor Joe Long, the 10th person to take on the role of Jesus Christ for the Columbus cast since 1975, TETELESTAI is part of a family tradition. His parents Don and Judy Long were a part of the first cast and three generations of the Long family are involved in this year's production.

"TETELESTAI is an incredibly unique experience and sharing it with my family makes it all that much more special," says Long, who has played the captain of the guards, Judas and Caiaphas before taking on the role of Jesus in 2009. "It's been such a huge part of my life that I got it tattooed on my arm."

Long's TETELESTAI tattoo, the 1975 logo of the show on his right arm, is one of his 14 to 22 tattoos (depending on how you count them). It takes Long over two hours to cover with makeup before he takes the stage.

"My tattoos are part of my journey and my story. However they are not a part of Jesus' story so it's best to hide them from audiences," Long says. "I've had a lot of people come up to me after the show and tell me they didn't realize I have tattoos, so the makeup certainly works."

Playing the apostles are Collin Ries (Judas), Mark Jackson (Peter), Joe Huddle (John), Luke Jackson (Andrew), Faith Fullen (Simon), Jillian Wade (Phillip), Katie Chrysler (James), Katy Schad (Matthew) and Hannah Gilliam (Thomas). Women followers include Anna Chrysler (Mary, Mother of Jesus), Brenna Mellum (Mary Magdalene), Lydia Emch (Cleophas) and Laura Jeggle (Salome).

The Jewish leaders include Peter Oellermann (Caiaphas), Abby Fullen (Annas), and Marissa Osborn (Alexander), Tori Valentino (Nimrod), Isabelle Gierman (Jeribai) and Olivia Lackey (Phineas). Key Romans are made up of Nick Schad (Pilate), Laura Gierman (Claudia), Emma Fullen (Adina), Sarah Sprague (Manlius), Jude Perkins (Captain of the Guard) and Trenton Charlson (Herod).

Nagy says directors spend half of the time preparing for the run of shows teaching basic acting technique to the cast. However, once they have their script, the actors then given quite a bit of freedom to come up with their own bits of stage business for each show.

"Every show is different because they're learning and getting better," Nagy says. "I always hope the last show is the best show ... until next year."

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From This Author Paul Batterson

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