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Chanhassen Dinner Theatres showcases local Lutheran couple in Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus, played by Ben Bakken, is admired by one of his followers, played by Bakken’s wife Maureen Sherman-Mendez. They are both appearing in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo credit: Act One, Too Ltd.

Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is currently offering Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar on its main stage. Performers Ben Bakken (Jesus) and Maureen Sherman-Mendez (follower) recently sat down with Pastor Mary Brown to discuss their unique roles as a couple and persons of faith in this show. The show runs through July 30, 2011. For tickets, call 952/934-1525 or visit the Web site:
Metro Lutheran: Let’s start with one of the reasons for this interview. How did you become involved with Hosanna! Lutheran Church (independent) in Lakeville, Minnesota?
Maureen: It was five years ago. Ben and I had been dating for 11 years. Our relationship had hit rock bottom and was in shambles. Some of our friends urged us to find a church hoping that would help us. My mother suggested Hosanna!. In the beginning, we would meet at church, just say hello, sit together and then leave. But looking back, I believe the entire turn of events was orchestrated by God because the first sermon series we heard was about repairing relationships. And I thought to myself, ‘That’s us.’
Ben: In all of our years together, we had never figured out our relationship until we started going to church and put God at the center. Then our whole relationship was born again. Now we are both members at Hosanna!. I sing on worship team. Maureen has led classes. Our church is very supportive. That’s why we love it there. We definitely started by sitting at the very back but we slowly moved to the front!
How long have you been performing together in the theater?
Maureen: We both attended high school at Eastview in Apple Valley and appeared in plays together there. I began performing at Chanhassen and then Ben followed me. The next performance, Hairspray, will be our eighth show together.
What is it like to perform in Jesus Christ Superstar and play such important figures in this integral story of the Christian faith?
Ben: Of course it is an honor and humbling for me to portray the role of Jesus. When Jesus Christ Superstar first came out in the ’70s, it was very controversial with no resurrection scene and the inappropriate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But we are not doing that show. We collaborated together to make this performance as Biblically accurate as possible. The cast dove into the Bible, and many were asking to borrow our Bible before the first rehearsal.
Maureen: The thing with this particular show is you can take it in one direction or you can take it in another direction. You could take it to a place where I would never go. As a believer, Ben has taken it to a difference place. Seeing him in the role of Jesus has been great for me and I hope [it is] for the audience.
What have you learned through the Superstar experience?
Maureen: It’s not often that we will be doing a Biblically-based show in musical theater. That being said, the main way we express our faith is in our relationships with the people we work with on a daily basis. We can do Hairspray and our faith will be just as much a part of our daily life as Jesus Christ Superstar. Being a Christian sometimes has a negative connotation, but the true meaning for me is fluid and different from person to person. I simply want others to know that I follow Jesus.

“When Jesus Christ Superstar first came out in the ’70s, it was very controversial with no resurrection scene and the inappropriate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.”

Ben: Being a part of this show has made me realize how many people have been hurt by past experiences with the church or religion in general. We believe God has put us in this place to be a light and let others know that Jesus loves them. Portraying Jesus has made everything different for me. Yes, it’s a dream role. But there are so many times on stage that I am in prayer, and I use that time to pray for the audience. I pray that the show will move people and they’ll go home and open up their own Bibles to read the story again.
Maureen: I also pray during the show that God will use this to bring people closer to Jesus. In the beginning, the story is told not from the eyes of Jesus, but from how Judas perceives Jesus. Some people are uncomfortable with that, but in the end even Judas can’t manipulate what Jesus came to do. I hope the show helps people ask questions about their faith because it’s okay if people disagree with the way something is portrayed. We want this performance to open doors and start conversations that create narratives people need to engage in. If we just blindly believe, have we really examined and discerned our faith in the way we should discover it? Seeing Jesus through the eyes of Judas may be the only way some people will understand the person of Jesus Christ.
How has Judas’ central role as a betrayer of Jesus in the show impacted your faith?
Ben: When I am looking at Judas during the last supper and seeing how close he was to Jesus, I understand much more fully the sacrifice Jesus made for us that one of his best friends would betray him. That pain alone, and the hurt and suffering Jesus went through, are greater than I ever imagined before.
Maureen: When you think about it, even Jesus was betrayed. This man, who lived a perfect sinless life, was utterly betrayed. We will never go through anything like Jesus experienced — the isolation, the physical pain, being called crazy. But if Jesus was able to endure it, I believe God will help me make my way through life’s difficulties.
What has been your biggest concern about performing in this show?
Ben: For me, Jesus Christ Superstar has been so controversial in the past that I feared people wouldn’t even give it a chance, or they would come in with their minds already made up. I do not want someone to say, “I saw this show in the ’70s and didn’t like it so I’m not coming.” I want to encourage people to give it another try, because the audiences are being moved in amazing ways. This is a totally different piece and also a great way to minister to others.
Maureen: A lot of times, we get so caught up in the details in trying to nail down who God is and who Jesus is that we nitpick the story to death. But how can we put God in a box and define God so easily? The truth of the story is about who Jesus is … his grace and his mercy. Jesus Christ Superstar is not a replacement for the Bible but one commentary on the story. I want this performance to be a jumping-off point for conversations. I think there is something really interesting about seeing someone portray Jesus because it helps us realize he was fully God and fully man. The people who spent time with Jesus on this earth? They were real people who looked just like me. This adds another layer of understanding to my faith. I’m not going to get angry at myself if I doubt things and bring them to the Lord in prayer. If there were people who saw Jesus perform miracles and if his best friend saw this and then questioned him, I know I can too.
What has been your greatest joy of Jesus Christ Superstar?
Ben: My favorite comment after a show was from a woman who said that this was the most Biblically accurate portrayal of Jesus Christ Superstar she had ever seen. Personally that is my goal. I feel like we have done a really good job, and I’m proud of it.
Maureen: The cast and the crew knew the importance of telling the story well. Everyone was on board in telling the greatest story ever told, no matter what their faith background. This has been my greatest joy!

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