When a friend asked him to tag along to auditions 2003, Carlos Cruz did – and unexpectedly wound up with the lead role in Near West Theatre’s summer youth production of Jesus Christ Superstar. A second-generation Puerto Rican, Carlos was born here but split his childhood between Cleveland and Puerto Rico. He graduated from Lincoln West High School, having attended there only during his senior year. Since his NWT debut, Carlos has been involved in theater here and as far away as New York City. In early 2014, he moved back to Cleveland and participated in Move On! Now he’s planning to audition for Superstar for a second time.
Q: How did you first get involved with Near West Theatre?
A: I was raised Pentecostal and always loved the music in church, but when I was no longer allowed to actively participate, I found myself searching for a new place to make music. During my senior year of high school I was involved with a production of The Wiz, and a friend from the show asked me to come audition with him at NWT for moral support. I said “OK, but I’m not doing the show.” When I walked in, I thought, “Oh, no – I am walking right back out of here.” In that particular audition group, I saw predominantly people who were not of color, so that intimidated me. I auditioned anyway. In my wildest dreams, I never thought my first role would be Jesus Christ in Jesus Christ Superstar, but Bob took a chance on me. I went in there blind, and it turned out to be one of the most life-changing experiences.
Q: Wow, you played Jesus your first time out? What was that like?
A: It was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life. It pushed me to extreme limits. The cast was just the most amazing cast that I ever could have worked with. The experience was gut-wrenching, emotional, just really inspirational. It was awesome – challenging as hell – for me as an individual who comes from a very worship-and-gospel background. To be confronted with some of these things in an in-your-face, doesn’t-let-down rock opera was just overwhelming and daunting. When I was told that I was going to be Jesus we were already well into the rehearsal process. My immediate reaction was, “No, you have the wrong one, choose someone with more experience.” But Bob saw something in me. The experience brought the best out of me, and it was a success because of what we all did.
Q: Are you auditioning for this year’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar?
A: Yes, I’m auditioning for it, but not expecting too much. For me, this is just coming full circle. A lot has happened since I first auditioned. My last NWT performance before Move On! was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2004. I left to do theater in other places; I studied vocal performance at Cleveland State University, went to New York City, and moved back to Puerto Rico for a while. There were always people from Near West who reached out.
Q: What do you have to say to others who might be considering auditioning for Jesus Christ Superstar?
A: Go audition! If there’s one show you want to experience, it’s Jesus Christ Superstar, especially at Near West Theatre. Actors have fewer limitations because Near West is open-minded in their casting. Near West is creativity, and I love it. They are going to do amazing things with this show. The fact that it will be performed in the sanctuary of a church is very exciting.
Q: You came back for Move On! What was it like saying goodbye to St. Patrick’s?
A: When I heard about Move On!, I had to come back. I owe NWT a debt of gratitude for everything they’ve done to push me along in the arts. It was a wonderful opportunity to come back and see everyone that I’d been missing, and to meet all these people who I should have crossed paths with, but for some reason I never had. It was a mixture of making new friends, revisiting old ones and getting back into the game as well. I feel blessed that I got to do that.
It was very bittersweet; that’s the word that continually keeps coming to mind. You never know how attached you are to a place until you walk back in and all these memories flood your mind. First kisses – I had my first kiss there; I fell in love for the first time there. I also had some falling-outs and some intense dramatic experiences. It was sweet in that I could give back to NWT a little of what it gave me and better in that some memories that came back were overwhelming, but Move On! was insanely amazing. To learn that many songs in that short a time, and the amount of people on stage – well, that was just the magic of NWT.
— Julie Cajigas
Near West Theatre is grateful for ongoing programmatic support from the Ohio Arts Council, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, and Greater Cleveland Community Shares, and for special support from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northeastern Ohio for equipment used by young people in technical workshops and other backstage experiences.