'Superstar' builds its house upon a rock concert

December 17, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

The production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" that opened its national tour at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre last night proves that in two decades this Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice supershow has come a glitzy full circle.

American theatergoers first saw it as an overblown Broadway extravaganza; in Norman Jewison's 1973 movie, the scenes were supposedly performed by a troupe touring Israel by bus. But before that, "Superstar" made its American debut as a concert tour. And, even though this new production stars Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson, who also starred in the movie, director/choreographer Tony Christopher has returned to "Superstar's" roots and staged this account of the last week of Jesus' life as a rock-concert theatrical.

The central element of designer Bill Stabile's set looks like a circular concert stage flanked by bleachers, and in keeping with that concept, the technical elements are boldly flaunted. Most of lighting designer Rick Belzer's elaborate equipment is in full view, and the performers trade off among three different styles of microphones -- hand-held, body mikes and head-sets.

Although the result is clearly a fully staged musical, the concert aura is repeatedly reinforced. In the "Hosanna" scene, banners resembling over-sized handbills descend from the flies. (My favorite reads: "Coming to Jerusalem, Jesus Christ in Person, Live, Plus all XII disciples.") And, among the sacrileges Jesus clears from the temple are hucksters peddling T-shirts, buttons and Jesus-style wigs.

Throughout the production's bombardment of activity, Neeley's Jesus maintains deliberate calm; for that matter, the actor frequently adopts the poses of religious statues, occasionally becoming the frozen centerpiece in a glowingly lit tableau.

Both he and Anderson have the vocal power required to propel their characters through the musical's rousing score (although Neeley's screams make you wonder whether his voice will survive the tour, or even this month-long Baltimore run). In terms of characterizations, the two leads effectively convey the humanity that is central to Lloyd Webber and Rice's view of the subject matter.

With this in mind, one of the stranger choices is the use of three chorus-girl angels who rarely leave Judas' side. Rice has said he was motivated by a desire to tell Judas' story, and yet, putting Judas in the thrall of angels -- and indeed, transforming him into a heaven-bound angel at the end -- seems to sway the balance a bit far.

There are a few other touches that might be reconsidered. For the title song, the cast wears spangly bell-bottomed 1960s-style costumes with colorful Pucci-like designs. En masse they resemble stained glass, but like the choreography for this number, the effect feels overworked. In addition, in the crucifixion scene, it looks ridiculous to see Jesus direct his last words to one of the soldier's spears, which is apparently a mike. And, finally, if indeed Pilate refers to Jesus with profanity -- which is what I think I heard -- it adds nothing but shock value and should be excised.

The supporting cast features a number of notable performers, including deep-voiced David Bedella as Caiaphas and Irene Cara, who, as Mary Magdalene, delivers a sweet rendition of "I Don't Know How To Love Him." A back injury has temporarily sidelined Dennis DeYoung, a founding member of STYX, who wasto have made his theatrical debut as Pilate; understudy James O'Neil proved an able substitute.

Though this production is technically complex, much of its success stems from the fact that, conceptually, it can be seen as a simple, straightforward interpretation of the word "superstar." And, after all, in today's culture, if a prophet wanted to reach the masses, what better arena than the rock concert stage? That was Rice and Lloyd Webber's original philosophy, and, with some 1990s high-tech bells and whistles, this production is the razzle-dazzle realization of that basic philosophy.

'Superstar'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza.

When: 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Wed.-Sat. and 3 p.m. Sun. Through Jan. 10.

Tickets: $22.50-$47.50.

& Call: (410) 625-1400.

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