'Superstar' shows super stamina

January 31, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

A little over a year ago, when Ted Neeley took the stage in Baltimore to launch a road show reprise of "Jesus Christ Superstar," he figured he'd sing the rock opera messiah for another three months, tops.

But behold: The revival that sold out the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre for four weeks in December and January last year returns tomorrow for a six-day stay at the Lyric Opera House.

And Mr. Neeley still plays Jesus.

"The way it looks from this point, we could do this tour forever," marvels Mr. Neeley, the Texas-born rock musician who originated the role in the 1971 Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice Broadway musical.

He also played the part in the 1973 film directed by Norman Jewison and had a lesser role in the original Broadway production. His co-star in the current road show, Carl Anderson as Judas, played the same part in the film.

"At the end of every week we've found out that more weeks have been added on. We are booked solid through this year and into the middle of next year," Mr. Neeley says over the telephone from a tour stop last week in Pennsylvania.

"This is our third night here, and we have people who bought tickets for all three nights when it was announced we were coming. That's insane -- I mean, it's good insane. We walk away from cities having made friends," he says.

"It's like we were a big rock and roll band and had a lot of hit records and now we're doing a reunion tour 20 years later."

The analogy seems apt, for the original "Superstar" arrived as one of those grand pop culture challenges to convention that highlighted the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Simon and Garfunkel reunited, the Rolling Stones continue to record and tour, the three surviving Beatles are getting together again, and even "Hair" -- that Age of Aquarius icon -- is in revival (due at the Mechanic in its U.S. premiere Feb. 22 through March 20).

"It seems this time around that people are responding to 'Superstar' because, quite frankly, it's been a part of their life since it first came out in the 1970s," says Mr. Neeley, who also had a role in the original production of "Hair."

Performances sometimes leave fans in tears, and they seek out the actors to talk about the show, he relates.

"The most common comment is, 'I've waited 20 years to say thank you,' " he says. "We had no idea there was this kind of crowd to see it again."

Sometimes, fans have even attended performances in costumes, wearing sandals and robes.

"It's certainly an evening of family theater now. We've had families of four generations attend," the actor says.

Although controversial in 1971 -- some religious leaders branded it as blasphemous for portraying Jesus as a mere man with human weaknesses -- "Jesus Christ Superstar" has seemingly gained status similar to what Tevye thunders in "Fiddler on the Roof": Tradition!

"There are people who say, 'We watch the movie every Easter,' or it has become a traditional Christmas thing they do with the family. People come back and say I learned about religion because of your part in the film, or 'You saved my daughter from becoming a junkie,' " the actor says.

How have such testimonials affected the performer, who was raised a Baptist in Texas?

"Well, I'm certainly not a minister, but it's deepened my respect for the character I'm playing," he says.

"In some cases, I've become synonymous in the mental aspirations or visuality of that character. I mean, I've had ministers who have told me when they pray they see my face," he says, then pauses. "That scares the hell out of me."

Even when he dons boots and jeans to go out for a beer after a show, he is recognized. "Didn't know Jesus wore Levi's and cowboy boots," he mimics in an exaggerated drawl.

"I wish you could feel how it is from our side of the stage," he says. "That energy that is focused upon us is just incredible.

"It's much different than any other piece of theater I've done, because they all come into that theater with some idea of Jesus in their minds, and Judas in their minds. They know the story so we're not out there teaching something. We're out there, in essence, taking on their very personally defined opinions of who these people are and talking about their deep-seated beliefs."

At 50, Mr. Neeley says he has no problems playing the part of the Biblical Jesus, as long as people keep coming to see the show.

"Age doesn't seem to be even a consideration with the people who come to see us," he says.

He notes that some critics have commented upon the age difference, suggesting the performers' voices (Mr. Anderson is 49) would not survive the tour.

"Maybe that's true with athletes, but not so in the entertainment business. Carl and I both have not stopped working all our lives, thank goodness, and I guess it's the old essence, 'If you don't use it you lose it.' We've used our voices continually, therefore I believe we're stronger than we've ever been."

'SUPERSTAR'

Where: Lyric Opera House

When: Tomorrow through Sunday, Feb. 6; 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 7 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $30 to $50

Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD 625-1407

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