A new Jesus Christ superstar is born


By Michael Clive

It’s not exactly what you’d call typecasting. Rick Carrier, who plays Pontius Pilate in the Chelsea Community Church production “Walk the Via Dolorosa,” is a man of deeply held principles and buoyant optimism — someone who would find a way to make lemonade when life doesn’t even give lemons. His dynamism exceeds that of most people one-third his age, which I won’t divulge, but do the math: at age 18 he was in the first wave of American GI’s to hit the beach on D-Day. And when it comes to a good cause, he’s tireless — which, in part, is why “Walk the Via Dolorosa” has evolved into the spectacular musical production that will mark its tenth anniversary presentation at Chelsea Community Church this Palm Sunday, April 9.

Drawing from sources as disparate as Broadway mega-hits and African-American spirituals, “Walk the Via Dolorosa” dramatizes events during the last week of Christ’s life, from Palm Sunday through Good Friday. And at Chelsea Community, a non-denominational lay church where congregants take turns presenting religious readings and leading the order of service, this decade-long tradition has come to seem like a miracle unto itself.

It all started when Rick Carrier was asked to serve as lay leader for the Palm Sunday service in 1996. “From a religious standpoint, it’s a significant day,” says congregant Lynn Ramsey. “But at many churches, including ours, it wasn’t necessarily well attended.” The following Sunday, after all, is Easter — a tough act to precede.

But at Chelsea Community, it seems, everyone is either a musician, an actor, or the best friend of two or three headliners.

“I was trying to come up with a way to attract people to the service,” says Carrier, “and it occurred to me to ask Billy Grey to sing as an accompaniment to the reading.” That would be William Daniel Grey, who performed the title role on Broadway in “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the original production and on tour throughout the US. From that simple beginning grew a highly anticipated, annual musical pageant that draws Chelsea Community’s biggest crowd of the year.

Grey, who admits he’s been crucified a thousand times, felt that 2006 was the year for a younger tenor to assume the role of Jesus: Scott Benedict, a veteran of the Washington Opera. But in addition to making the stark transition to the role of Judas, Grey continues as music director for much of the show, providing digital arrangements for synthesizer that give the impression of much larger instrumental ensembles.

Musically, “Dolorosa” continues to grow in scope, and this year encompasses 23 musical numbers by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, George Bennard, Charles Gounod and others. Premiering in this year’s production will be “Bartimaeus’ Song” by noted songwriter Karen Benedetto, who will accompany tenor Anthony Santelmo, Jr. on guitar.

As for Rick Carrier, he is re-enacting Pontius Pilate’s deeds with the same gusto he shows in every life-challenge. “I studied him and decided he was such a bad dude, the Romans just wanted to get rid of him,” says Carrier. “Then, when he got to Jerusalem, he really screwed up.” The approach adds drama to his big solo, “Pilate’s Dream.” “I do it completely differently than it was done on Broadway — not complex, not hesitant and full of conflict. Just nasty.” His friends might not recognize him.

“Walk the Via Dolorosa” will be performed by Chelsea Community Church in historic St. Peter’s Church, 346 West 20th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, on Sunday, April 9 at 11:45 a.m. There is no charge for the pageant, but offerings will be accepted. Further information is at www.chelseachurch.org.