CHRIS Bathgate smiles when he says he is perfect casting for the title character in Jesus Christ Superstar. "I'm a builder," he notes.
That allusion in gospel references to Christ as a carpenter is followed by Bathgate observing that none of the performers he has seen as Jesus in the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera have looked like they'd done hands-on building.
Bathgate's casting is an example of the attention director Chris Maxfield and the production team of The National Theatre Company's Jesus Christ Superstar have paid to the staging of the work.
While most productions of the musical have a team of mainly rock musicians accompanying the songs, this one has a 40-member orchestra, with a large string section that includes eight violins, four violas, two cellos and a double bass.
TNTC has followed Andrew Lloyd Webber's original concept for the show. It began life in 1970 as a double vinyl record album, with the composer referring to it as an oratorio and the singers accompanied by a 56-member orchestra.
The success of the album led to the work being staged on Broadway in October, 1971, and it has been a worldwide hit ever since.
The musical's popularity can be seen in the selling-out two weeks ago of the TNTC season at the Civic Theatre, even though it doesn't open until March 11. It's the first time in the theatre's 85-year history that a show offering 7500 seats over five performances has done that.
Jesus Christ Superstar has had an interesting history. Its original Broadway season was picketed by members of Christian churches who claimed it was irreligious. But it is now widely accepted among church communities, and many of them have staged the show.
As well as being a builder, Chris Bathgate is a devout Christian, and appeared in December as one of the storytellers in The Grainery Theatre's A Christmas Tale, a musical look at the events that led to Christmas, at Christ Church Cathedral.
He is impressed by the depth that composer Lloyd Webber and lyricist Rice have given to Jesus' character as the musical shows the last seven days of his life and his different relationships - with disciple Judas Iscariot, his other apostles, and fallen woman Mary Magdalene.
Marty Worrall, cast as Judas, shares Bathgate's appreciation of the detail the writing team have given to the characters and the demands placed on the actors portraying them.
Judas sees dangers in the fervent opposition of Jerusalem's religious leaders, the Pharisees, to the down-to-earth messages of Jesus. But while he tries to warn Jesus about the dangers he faces, he is also used by the Pharisee leaders, Annas and Caiaphas, to betray Jesus.
The cast of 50 includes Alicia Paterson as Mary Magdalene, Des Robertson as Pontius Pilate, the Roman military commander in Jerusalem, Tony Keene as Caiaphas, Michael Godschalk as Annas, Ian Crouch as King Herod, and Mitchell Cox, Annie Devine, Brian Wark and Andrew Black in key supporting roles.
The show's auditions attracted a wide range of people, with the cast including young performers such as 14-year-old dancer Ruby Hindle.
Andrew Lloyd Webber drew on the styles of classical composers including Beethoven, Grieg, Orff, and Prokofiev in writing the songs, with Tim Rice putting witty comedy into many of the pronouncements by those opposed to Christ.
The songs include Mary Magdalene's I Don't Know How to Love Him, Judas' Heaven on Their Minds, plus What's the Buzz, Everything's Alright and Superstar.
The orchestra is led by musical director Greg Paterson, with Isabelle Leonard as choreographer, and set and lighting design by Scott Travis.
While the season - Wednesday to Saturday, March 11 to 14, at 8pm, plus a 2pm Saturday matinee - is booked out, phone 4929 1977, to see if there have been any ticket returns.