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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, July 16, 2004

'Jesus' offers Hawai'i Kai actor a divine challenge

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Matthew Pennaz can't explain why he's fetched larger-than-life theatrical roles that require him to be pure or holy.

Matthew Pennaz, center, is playing the role of Jesus in Diamond Head Theatre's production of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Alison Maldonado performs as Mary Magdalene, and John Bryan plays Judas Iscariot.

Brad Goda

The 23-year-old Hawai'i Kai resident played Lancelot, a picture of purity, in Army Community Theatre's "Camelot" in May. Starting tonight at Diamond Head Theatre, Pennaz will portray the title role in "Jesus Christ, Superstar."

"I certainly didn't try out for Jesus," he said; he'd been eager to at least get an ensemble part. "I might have (privately) said a couple of 'Hail Marys' and let out a big smile, but I didn't go out for this specific role."

Playing Jesus, he said, is tough in a time when so many folks have so many preconceptions of what Jesus should be and what happened to him, particularly in light of Mel Gibson's cinematic take in "The Passion of the Christ" earlier this year.

"It's overwhelming," Pennaz says. "Certainly, our show won't be as bloody (as Gibson's). But I have a lot of determination, drive; I love to work hard for people. I can sing pretty well, and when I like the people I work for, I give it my all."

'Jesus Christ Superstar'

• A rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, produced by Diamond Head Theatre

• Premieres at 8 p.m. today; repeats 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 1

• Diamond Head Theatre

• $12-$42

• 733-0274

He wanted to be associated with this Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera (about the last seven days in the life of Jesus, his relationship with Mary Magdalene, the betrayal of Judas and Jesus' eventual crucifixion) because of the behind-the-scenes talent involved — namely, director-choreographer Andrew Sakaguchi and musical director Melina Lillios.

"They are wonderful (mentors)," said Pennaz, a Punahou grad who's now studying at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

Acting, he said, is "more of a hobby than an occupation. I just love doing shows, for the fun of it."

He said he's done productions since he was 11, but never majored in theater. In college, he majored in music and economics and is now focused on completing his master's degree in economics in December.

"I tell people that music is for my heart, economics for my pocketbook," he said.

When he auditioned for "Superstar," his tryout number was "Close Every Door," from another Lloyd Webber musical, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

"But Andrew and Melina were looking for a Jesus and they asked me to sing 'Gethsemane,' which I did. After I finished, they kind of paused, and the first thing out of their mouth was, 'Here's the CD. Go listen to it.' "

He rushed to his car and listened, and returned 20 minutes later to continue his audition.

Pennaz is growing a goatee for the Jesus look; he was also growing out his hair, but he'll sport a shorter cut on stage.

"I'm trying to avoid all the preconceived notions about Jesus and just try to emote, from within," he said.

"Acting is so freeing; I do it for the time I get to spend with the audience and the cast, all for the love of the art. I'm having a great time."

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com, 525-8067 or fax 525-8055.