Large local production will explore timely themes of faith

As folks across the region celebrate their faith this weekend, more than 400 people are putting the finishing touches on a show that will explore issues of belief and spirituality.

Penn State’s schools of Music and Theatre and the Center for the Performing Arts will offer “Mass” — a Leonard Bernstein production — April 5 and 6 at Eisenhower Auditorium.

The show will star Penn State senior Jim Hogan as the celebrant in a Roman Catholic congregation, and explores the complex nature of faith, belief and the religious experience through a mix of musical styles, organizers said.

“Mass” is the centerpiece event in a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the university’s College of Arts and Architecture.

The show has been three years in the works, said Russell Bloom, assistant to the director of the Penn State School of Music.

“We can put 110,000 people in Beaver Stadium for a football game against Michigan because it might be the game of the century,” Bloom said. “This is the game of the century for us in the College of Arts and Architecture.”

The Bernstein production was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and debuted in 1971 at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

The local production will involve a full orchestra and a rock band, three chorus groups, a children’s choir and a complete stage team.

“There are so many people involved in this show, and the opportunity to see it is so rare,” said Travis DeCastro, associate director for production in the Penn State School of Theatre.

He called the show a collaborative effort featuring the theater and music departments, the Center for the Performing Arts and numerous community professionals and volunteers.

“It’s very large, it’s very expensive,” DeCastro said. “Theatre couldn’t do this by itself. Music couldn’t do this by itself. It took all of these units to make it happen.”

Director Ted Christopher said talks years ago about doing larger local productions were the seeds that led to this moment.

“This show features excellent musicians, excellent actors, excellent dancers,” Christopher said. “There is a large choral participation, a large band participation. There is a large-scale scenic element.”

And through it all, he said, there is the theme of an individual and shared journey of spirituality — right after Easter and Passover.

“The piece is a work of deep, deep faith,” Christopher said, adding that “Mass” draws on the movement of its time that included topics such as war and rebellion and works including “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell.”

But he said the show speaks to people at all stages of the journey, including nonbelievers and those who might be disenchanted with organized religion.

“The audience shouldn’t be scared or intimidated by the title ‘Mass,’ because this is not a church show,” Christopher said. “It’s not even dogmatic in expressing a point of view. It’s not a Catholic piece or even a Christian piece.

“But this piece desperately wants to say that there is a reason, that there is hope, that there is a point to our existence.”

Bloom believes all who attend will be moved to look inward, even as a grand performance plays out on the stage before them.

“We tend to want everything to be black and white, and with faith it’s not black and white,” he said. “That’s why you do this on a college campus. Young people are questioning those things. They’re trying to find answers. And in the end it really is about the individual experience. It’s about your personal journey and your beliefs.”

Bloom said the staging of “Mass” here is meaningful beyond the powerful Bernstein music and the timeliness of religious holidays and gatherings.

He sees around him a community rocked by scandal that could use a positive message.

“As a man of faith, I want the dialogue to start with us,” Bloom said. “I think it’s in the community of faith that the healing needs to start for the community at large.

“This couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.”

Follow Chip Minemyer on Twitter @MinemyerChip.