Director Liz Horrigan said she is not trying to make a statement on theology or women's rights, she just wants to put on the best show possible.
At St. Ursula Academy, where Ms. Horrigan was directing rehearsals earlier this week for next weekend's production of Jesus Christ Superstar, senior Emely Ortiz sang "Gethsemane" with such a rich, clear alto voice that Ms. Horrigan smiled and asked a reporter, "Now you see why we cast her?"
In her 30 years of directing high school theater, including 17 at St. Ursula, Ms. Horrigan has shifted from using female-only casts to opening the auditions to boys from all area high schools.
At Superstar auditions last fall, Ms. Horrigan and musical director Allison Krzyminski picked a cast of 90, initially thinking they would have a St. Ursula student play Judas and a boy portray Jesus in the 1971 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
But the directors were struck by how well Miss Ortiz's vocal range and abilities fit the songs that Jesus sings, and when Mark Beyer, a St. John's Jesuit High School junior, auditioned they knew he would make a perfect Judas.
Ms. Horrigan said she believes audiences go to a show with "a willing suspension of disbelief," quoting 19th century poet Samuel Coleridge Taylor.
"We're not making a great women's lib statement necessarily. I think that Christ, God, faith is beyond gender and that's how we've approached it," she said.
"Somebody said, 'Are you going to put a beard on Emely?' No. We're taking her as she is. This is Christ and you just make the assumption," Ms. Horrigan said.
For her part, Miss Ortiz has been both challenged and inspired by her role as Christ.
After auditioning for various roles, she got the word she was Jesus.
"I was shocked," she said. "I was not expecting it at all. It was like, this is such a hard part and how am I going to do this? What are people going to think? I was just confused, I guess."
The 18-year-old senior, who plans on studying psychology next year in college, said she realizes some people consider it controversial for a girl to portray the Son of God.
"I'm not nervous about singing, but I'm definitely nervous about what people are going to think," she said. "It's been such a challenge. But I'm literally putting all my energy into it so I hope everyone likes it."
Her friends and family, meanwhile, have been teasing her nonstop since she got the part.
"They make jokes all the time! I never hear the end of it," Miss Ortiz said. "When they talk about Jesus in theology class, they say, 'Oh, you mean Emely?'•"
Mark Beyer, who in addition to playing Judas is rehearsing as Nathan Detroit in St. John's production of Guys and Dolls, admits he was surprised to learn that Miss Ortiz would be Jesus.
"If I told you I wasn't skeptical at first I'd be lying," he said. "But Emely's done a terrific job. I don't know anybody at this level who could do a better job. I'm more than pleased."
Ms. Horrigan, Ms. Krzyminski, and Miss Ortiz said the nature of the musical's plot constantly brings the Bible to mind.
"First of all, it's theater, it's not a profession of faith," Ms. Horrigan said. "Yet it is a faith journey to relive this part of the Gospel every time we run the show."
Miss Ortiz said she was reminded of Jesus' sacrifice during rehearsals.
"I had my arms up for the Crucifixion and they were hurting so bad! And I was staying like that for only four minutes - and Jesus had to do this for how long? It's definitely been a spiritual journey for me."
St. Ursula Academy will present ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Feb. 6 and 2 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Franciscan Center at Lourdes College, 6832 Convent Blvd., Sylvania. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $8 for students, available in advance by calling the school, 419-531-1693, or at the box office prior to the shows.
Contact David Yonke at: