`Superstar' has staying power even after 30 years

April 10, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Three decades after Jesus Christ Superstar first became a hit, it's striking how shrewd and savvy the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber interpretation of the New Testament remains.

Despite some unavoidably dated dialogue, the 1971 version of the betrayal and execution of the man thought by Christians to be the son of God is alternately cheeky and affecting. The show wrestles with such issues as mob psychology, the seductive hazards of celebrity and free will.

Rice, who wrote the lyrics, imbued the figures cast by history as the villains of this story - Judas and Pontius Pilate - with a complex humanity. In the show's title song, Judas yells out the frustrated bewilderment and anguished idealism felt by centuries of believers: Every time I look at you, I don't understand/ Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.

That is not to say that Jesus Christ Superstar is a subtle show. The national tour running at the Mechanic Theatre through Sunday has a new staging by Kevin Moriarty, a bleak, industrial set by Peter Davidson and costumes by Roger Kirk that imbue it with a gloriously campy atmosphere.

Webber's music always has been more about verve and enthusiasm than technical finesse. So this adaptation, with its clouds of smoke, flashlights shining into the audience's eyes and storm-trooper costumes is a good fit with his hummable, bombastic score.

Two of the restaged scenes are particularly effective. The temple is transformed into this era's new "church" - Wall Street - and the money changers become stockbrokers frantically making deals under signs recording each upswing and downturn of the market.

In the following scene, Jesus is beset by hordes of the walking wounded, begging to be healed. The actors are shrouded in loose clothes and lit with a green glow that gives the gathering a nightmarish, surreal quality that expresses the immense pressure that the young prophet is feeling.

That said, this production could use more time to breathe. The show moves along at such a clip that the rare introspective moments - such as "Pilate's Dream" - have come and gone before the audience has had time to absorb them.

This production also could use a more magnetic Jesus. Understudy Raymond Patterson valiantly stepped into the starring role when rock bad boy Sebastian Bach was fired last week. While Patterson masters the difficult falsetto requirements of the role, he never comes across as someone who could change the world.

Superstar is at its excessive best whenever the head priest Caiaphas (Lawson Skala), his toady Annas (Jeffrey Polk) and the Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate (Stephen Breithaupt) are on stage. Skala has a deep bass that rumbles like a rockslide.

Natalie Toro's slightly grubby, street-wise Mary Magdalene has a pure and lovely voice, but it didn't show to best effect during Tuesday's performance. First, over-miking distorted part of "Everything's Alright" into an electronic screech. Later, Toro's phrasing of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" was so idiosyncratic that it took a full verse for the orchestra to figure out how to play in sync with her.

But Carl Anderson's Judas was revelatory. In the three decades since he initiated the Broadway role, his Judas has evolved from a young firebrand to a disillusioned political operative trying to handle a fallible leader. Judas faces a soul-crushing decision: Betray his friend, or betray his cause. His tragedy is that for the very best of reasons, he chooses wrong.

Jesus Christ Superstar

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: The Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

Tickets: $22.50-$70

Call: 410-481-7328

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