Dance and art

Life in the theater is "very much a lock" for the Atlanta star of "Jesus Christ Superstar"

When Omar Lopez-Cepero takes the stage as the villain next week in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Fox Theatre, he'll be taking the stage for the first time at Atlanta's historic showplace. And it's been coming for a long time.

The actor says he's been to many shows at Fox, grew up around Atlanta and graduated from Duluth High School. Now he's returning home in the first few months of his North American tour to play one of the most impressive roles in musical theater, Judas Iscariot. The show runs from April 19 to 24.

Lopez-Cepero took a break from his vocal rest regime to speak with ArtsATL on the roots and trajectory of his career.

ArtsATL: This is the 50th anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. But this Olivier Award-winning revival, which launched in London in 2016, is somewhat different from previous productions, isn't it?

López-Cepero: I think that [this version] has something for everyone. Theatrical audiences will really love this show. It's an iconic piece, and obviously you can't go wrong with Andrew Lloyd Webber. But for people new to theater, it's a great segue because there's really a rock concert element and we have the band on stage. And it really hits!

Atlanta native Omar Lopez-Cepero says he knows "it's going to be a weird 'pinch me' thing" when he performs at Fox. "I'll probably tear up during the sound check, because the loop will feel very full."

ArtsATL: How does the How has the tour been going for you so far?

López-Cepero: It is an incredible honor to be on this tour! This show is 50 years old. And so to see how it's been interpreted for so many years in different ways through different lenses, and to be a part of that legacy now is really an honor for me. And my good friend actually plays Jesus! Aaron [LaVigne] and I have been friends for about 12 years, and he was a groomsman at my wedding.

ArtsATL: So how does this real friendship translate on stage?

López-Cepero: Well, interestingly enough, I wouldn't say that we are the same as the characters, but there are certain similarities within the characters that I think we can both relate to. In Aaron's case for Jesus, he's carefree, positive, lives his life like everything is fine, everything will be fine. Whereas I'm always thinking, "Okay, well, what's the plan? What happens next?" So, from Omar/Aaron's perspective, this leans into the Judas/Jesus characters, because Judas is like, "Hey man, things are getting out of hand," and Jesus says, "No, man, everything's fine. Don't worry about it. Take it one day at a time.

And also, there's just a natural chemistry there because we've known each other for so long. So, you know, a simple look or roll of the eyes or something makes more sense because I've seen it before.

And there are a lot of complexities and nuances in this story. I think what was great about Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice was that they told the story from the antagonist's point of view, but they let him be the protagonist of the story. So that was really rewarding and really fun. I'm grateful that I've developed a good technique through my studies and work over the years to be able to get into it.

ArtsATL: Sat the height of your training, you started here in Atlanta, right?

López-Cepero: Yeah, it's a pretty cool story, actually. I was an athlete growing up. I played soccer - I played a lot of different sports - and my parents loved music and the arts, but they didn't know much about it. I was drawn to music. And then in middle school - I'll never forget - the orchestra teacher had a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra come in and play cello and play "The Flight of the Bumblebees." And I was literally looking at that cello thinking, "Oh my God, this is amazing!" So I played the cello for two years, in sixth and seventh grade.

ArtsATL: How did you get into theater?

López-Cepero: I had fallen in love with music and recognized that I could sing. So I joined the choir, and it wasn't until my junior year at Duluth High School that I think the universe intervened. I auditioned for a class that was called Music Theatre Workshop, but it turned out to be an upperclassman class. And so the professor thought I was a transfer student when I auditioned. Well, I don't know how she thought that because I was 4 feet 11 inches tall as a freshman and I looked like I was 11 [laughs]! But the lucky thing was that they were doing a production of Mamewho has a role called Little Patrick who is 11 years old. And guess who played Little Patrick and made his musical debut?

Lopez-Cepeno with his Duluth High School drama teacher, Rebecca Houser, whom he calls "a major inspiration."

ArtsATL: Have you also seen any theater around Atlanta?

López-Cepero: I've definitely been seeing shows at the Fox, which I think is really cool for me to be able to play on that stage. It's so crazy!

I'll never forget sitting in the audience and seeing the twinkling stars. It's like, what are we, in Arabian Nights? It's crazy! So I know it's going to be a weird "pinch me" thing [when I perform there]. I'll probably tear up during the sound check, because the loop will feel very full. You know, I've been able to play so many great venues and theaters across the country, but I've never been able to play in my main home theater. I've been there for a good little minute and to have this opportunity at this point in my career to come back in a role like this is special.

ArtsATL: Where else did you attend theater growing up?

López-Cepero: I also saw shows at the Aurora Theatre and the Atlanta Lyric Theatre, the Georgia Ensemble Theatre. I was grateful that my parents introduced me to a lot of that as an audience member.

And I have to thank my high school teachers, Rebecca Houser, who was my drama teacher and will be coming to see Jesus Christ Superstarand, unfortunately, my late choir teacher Lee Rodriguez Ayres. They were both instrumental in helping me discover this vocation, because without them, I probably would have been a doctor or a lawyer or whatever. [In his senior year, his teachers encouraged him to pursue a music scholarship, and he ended up scoring a full one to study voice at the University of Miami]. I really owe them a lot for the experiences I've had in my life and career.

ArtsATL: How nice! After this tour, at some point, you have the musical version of The notebook to come, where you will play Lon.

López-Cepero: Yes, I'm really excited about it! We were supposed to do it, like a year and a half ago when the pandemic hit. So we rescheduled the production two, three times. So hopefully it's still happening, knock on wood, in the fall. And it premieres at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre with a hopeful turn on Broadway later in 2023.

It's a beautiful, beautiful show. I mean, obviously the book is incredible and the movie, you know, is iconic. But it's something that really, because it's such a moving show, lends itself to being musicalized. Ingrid Michaelson wrote the music and the lyrics, and if you know her music, she's a singer-songwriter who really leads with the lyrics, and her melodies are powerful.

ArtsATL: As an actor, was it difficult to navigate through the pandemic?

López-Cepero: It really made me think about a lot of things because the career kind of dissolved into nothingness, and a lot of things happened to my wife [stage and screen actress Arianna Rosario] and I before the pandemic, we said, "What will it look like when things come back, if they come back, and is this the life we still want to lead?" And when we really sat down, we said, "This is the only thing we can see ourselves doing." I mean, yes, maybe we can direct or produce and do things across the board, but I will always be an artist. And I think art found me because it was my calling, and I'm grateful for that.

ArtsATL: Well, thank you very much for taking the time out of your day and your vocal rest to talk to ArtsATL.

Lopez-Cepero: That's okay. It's part of my warm-up [laughs].

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Sally Henry Fuller is an avid theater and performing arts journalist with a passion for telling people's stories. When she's not interviewing artists, you can find her at a local coffee shop or watching a musical with her bearded husband.

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