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STAGE REVIEW : Harris Is a Jesus With Chutzpah in Glitzy ‘Superstar’ Revival

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sam Harris, the “Star Search” discovery, is now playing the biggest “superstar” of them all: “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

For the Long Beach Civic Light Opera, he joins Carl Anderson, who created the role of Judas in the initial Los Angeles production and in the movie, as well as Barry Dennen, who sang Pontius Pilate on the original album, which preceded any stagings.

That was 20 years ago--half a lifetime for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was all of 22 when the first “Superstar” album was released.

Seen two decades later, the work betrays a youthful inconsistency of tone, although much of this is in the lyrics of Lloyd Webber’s slightly older partner, Tim Rice.

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Some of the lyrics clearly indicate a tongue-in-cheek attitude of ironic detachment toward the subject. Yet in Long Beach, no one laughs during Tony Stevens’ staging until late in the second act, when suddenly a leather-clad King Herod (Dan McCoy) offers the first clear signal that this isn’t supposed to be as reverent as, say, “The Glory of Easter” at the Crystal Cathedral.

This was my recollection from the original too: a gnawing feeling that the show’s creators had conflicting or confused intentions. They were trying to prove that a rock score could handle this subject as seriously as any other kind of music, yet their own perspective on Jesus and Judas was either considerably less reverent, or else not really shaped at all.

Jonathan Bixby’s costumes reflect this. Some of them are straight-faced representations of what we imagine people wore in biblical times. Some of them are quasi-biblical with a psychedelic palette added. Then there’s Herod in his black leather get-up.

Jesus is in pristine white throughout. We don’t want to carry this hippie stuff too far, do we? And the goblins that torment Judas are in black with colorful masks; they could have been in some medieval morality play. All they need is a pitchfork or two.

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Those goblins, along with lots of dry ice and lunging choreography, certainly take the show deep into kitsch in its very first scene, which is crowned by Jesus’ triumphant appearance atop a platform, against a pink sky.

But “Superstar” is partially redeemed by Lloyd Webber’s melodies, an energetic pit band led by Steven Smith, and excellent casting.

Harris is a Jesus with chutzpah, and his voice is perfect for the part. In a show that’s heavy with production values, it’s interesting that the most affecting moment is when Jesus is alone on stage, questioning his fate in “Gethsemane,” and Harris gets maximum mileage out of that moment.

Anderson must have been a mere babe when he did the role years ago, for he looks just about the right age now. Although Judas isn’t nearly as weighty a character here as Rice and Lloyd Webber seem to think he is, Anderson is properly agonized and yelps with authority.

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Valerie Perri is a strong, straightforward Mary Magdalene, and Dennen ponders Pilate’s fate with precision, though not with a cooperative sound system on opening night. But the voice that made jaws drop was the booming basso of P. L. Brown’s Caiaphas. All the voices are intensely amplified, of course.

The lavish production values here are not in Ray Recht’s set as much as in Kim Killingsworth’s light show. The grand finale may not be the Resurrection--an issue of some controversy during the show’s early years--but it gives Jesus a glittery ascension into heaven that makes one forget about the Resurrection.

Eat your heart out, “Glory of Easter.”

At the Terrace Theater of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through May 20. $12.50-$32.50; (213) 432-7926 or (714) 826-9371. A special benefit performance for Cedar House, a child abuse treatment center, is scheduled Tuesday at 8 p.m.; information at (213) 432-6352.

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