Dress rehearsal isn't until next week, so for this afternoon the students performing in Mount Carmel Academy's production of the 1971 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar are doing their walk-throughs in their regular duds. When it comes time for the performance, Jennifer Collins, who sings the role of Jesus, and Ashleigh Hoppe, who sings the role of Judas, will be in costume, but they won't wear beards or men's clothing. They will look pretty much like what they are -- girls -- but they will sing the lyrics straight from the original version, as written by the show's creators Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. So when Ashleigh/Judas sings to Jennifer/Jesus, "No talk of God then, we called you a man," the audience members will have to make their own imaginative leap. The same leap when Faith Avilene DePano, who plays Mary Magdalene, sings the lament, "I don't know how to love him, what to do, how to move him. He's a man; he's just a man ... ."
"We view that as a big friendship kind of thing," says Jennifer Collins. "Jesus definitely had best friends who were women. He treasured women."
Mount Carmel's Jesus Christ Superstar is really all about the women -- and the girls. The 45-member cast is all-female, save for three boys who sing in the chorus and one boy who plays Pontius Pilate. There is also a dad who sings the part of King Herod and another dad who plays guitar in the band.
They say the theater is one big family, and that is certainly true at Mount Carmel. As high school drama coaches, director Jorinda Junius and her choreographer sister Heidi Junius -- whose daughter also sings in the show -- had done 14 productions of Godspell already and were eager for something new. They are both alumnae of Mount Carmel, and they are both just wild for Jesus Christ Superstar.
"I saw it on Broadway in 1974," says Heidi Junius. "It was my first rock show ever. Blew. Me. Away."
The Mount Carmel backstage crew is also all female. One intrepid girl clambers up a tall ladder to hang lights, where she disappears into the ceiling up to her rolled white socks and brown scuffed school shoes. And that is the whole point right there, says Jorinda Junius: The girls do it all because this is their school and their production. That's how they learn to be competent women.
"Maybe we are making a little bold statement with this show. But we are a strong sex, and we prove it," Jorinda Junius continues. "I teach it to them right here: You can do anything a man can do."
Jorinda Junius reveals that her views have been influenced by her mother, a devout Catholic who in her 60s went back to school for a master's degree in theology. "My mother would just love to the be first female priest. She believes that God is female. And she can tell you all the historical reasons why, too."
Such theological debates, however, were in the background when casting the show. Jorinda Junius' primary reason for putting girls in the roles of Jesus and Judas is not as controversial as you might expect. "We're not trying to make anyone uncomfortable with this, but we could not give the lead roles to boys because this is an all-girls school," she points out. "So we absolutely had to have female leads."
Trans-gender casting has always been the norm with all-girls Catholic high school drama clubs. (The 1953 yearbook for The Marymount School in New York, for example, contains a number of photographs of a girl --who would become my mother -- wearing a mustache and carrying a spear.) If the school play has male characters, then girls will play them. It's supposed to be make-believe. That's why they call it acting.
Yet trans-gender casting doesn't have a neutral impact. In one broad view of theatrical tradition, when a man plays the role of a woman, that performance is burlesque -- a caricature of what's real, done for laughs. But when a woman plays the role of a man, that performance frequently comes across as a sharp commentary on what's real -- a commentary that inevitably raises issues of power and entitlement. When a woman assumes a man's role, as in some contemporary productions of Shakespeare's plays, the gender switch allows the audience to notice the woman-as-man experiencing the freedom to do things that she couldn't do in the role typically assigned to her sex.
At Mount Carmel Academy, no one in the drama club says she intends to challenge the Vatican's refusal to allow the ordination of women, which the Church justifies by citing the fact that Jesus Christ was a man. But the act of placing a girl in a man's role -- and no less a role than the Son of God -- questions the status quo, even if it doesn't mean to.
Yet if there is a revolution happening at Mount Carmel, it is a quiet one. The girls are mainly "very excited" to be doing this "totally cool" rock opera. The question of whether women should be ordained as priests hasn't been a big debate so far. Jennifer Collins does allow that in her roles as both the vice president of the drama club and as the Son of God, she has a lot riding on her shoulders. "I never get nervous on stage," she says. "But I have to be careful not to freak myself out by thinking how I am this image of Jesus Christ. If anything, that would be the thing that makes me nervous."
The girls tend to express less focused feelings about the potential gender message contained in their performance. "Time changes a lot of things. Hopefully we will evolve to something like that," says Jennifer Collins with some caution.
"Well, I'm not going to carry a sign on a picket line," says Ashleigh Hoppe. "But I don't think there's anything wrong with it. I think it would be a nice change -- oh pooh! That's me. I have to go."
Someone is summoning Ashleigh to rehearse a song. She sprints back to the stage where she wields the microphone like a pro and struts confidently, as she sings Judas' doomy line: "They'll crush us if we go too far."
Not likely. At Mount Carmel Academy, the girls are going just as far as they want.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at Mount Carmel Academy Nov. 20-24. For tickets, call 288-7626.