The emphasis is on singing, not spectacle, in director-choreographer Tony Christopher’s touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock reworking of the medieval mystery-play form. With a few selective exceptions–such as Herod’s court (which could have come right out of The Rocky Horror Show), the Supremes-in-Vegas rendition of the title song, and the impressive depiction of the hero’s heavenward ascent–Christopher avoids flashy effects, taking instead a simple, pageantlike approach to the story of Christ’s trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. The focus is where it should be in opera: on strongly drawn characters whose conflicts are communicated through dramatically clear and emotively performed music. Lloyd Webber’s punchy, tuneful score–which contains at least twice as many distinctive, expressive melodies as do all his other shows combined–and Rice’s libretto, which sometimes still surprises with its flip irreverence about the motivations of the messiah’s foes and followers, are put across with commitment and energy by a cast of rich-voiced rockers. Carl Anderson as Judas sets the pace (and steals the show) with his gritty, soaring soul vocals–he has a great gift for combining stylish musicianship with solid characterization. Ted Neeley is a generally reserved, even delicate Jesus until he lets loose with his crowd-pleasing wails in the soul-searching “Gethsemane” aria. Irene Cara’s Mary Magdalene goes a bit overboard on melody-bending improvisation in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” but her “Could We Start Again, Please” duet with Kevin R. Wright’s honey-throated Peter is genuinely lovely, as is Dennis DeYoung’s moody account of “Pilate’s Dream.” David Bedella, once a stalwart of Chicago’s musical-theater scene, returns in fine style as conniving Caiaphas. Twenty-two years after it first hit the record charts, this landmark work is a war-horse to be sure; and, yes, the dances do look like a cross between a De Mille movie and Hullabaloo. But Jesus Christ Superstar still has things to say, and it states its ideas with conviction, confidence, and considerable musical appeal. If you miss it this weekend, tickets go on sale next week for a return engagement July 21 through 25. Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State, 559-1212. Through March 21: Wednesday-Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 2 and 7 PM. $30.50-$43.50.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Richard Feldman.