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‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Stirring, Memorable

When “Jesus Christ Superstar” was first produced on Broadway 19 years ago, it caused picketing and protests by religious groups. A rock opera about the final days of Christ? A sympathetic portrait of Judas? A question about whether Jesus was a man or a god?

It’s hard to imagine the stirring and beautifully sung production, in its Starlight Musical Theatre premiere at the Starlight Bowl, causing protests now.

Part of the reason is the inevitable softening effects of time. And an appreciation of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who made his first indelible imprint on the American consciousness with this score.

And the very tone of the production has changed over the years.

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The show was conceived by Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice as a portrayal of Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas and as a man, not a god.

The original production used modern dress and a cross-cultural cast; it shocked some audiences with the raw edges it brought to one of the most famous stories ever told. An Asian played Mary Magdalene. A black played Judas in both the original Broadway and movie versions of the play. At Starlight, in a more seemingly self-conscious choice, the cast is cross-cultural, but Jesus, Judas and Mary are white.

But the biggest change in “Jesus Christ Superstar” here is one in emphasis--one that will please some and disappoint others. Judas’ point of view is muted. It is easy here to reject him out of hand as a non-believer rather than to sympathize with him as the one man in a band of dreamers who anticipated and feared the disaster that would follow when a Jewish leader--Jesus--became a superstar ripe for the crushing in Roman-occupied Jerusalem.

Still what cannot help to please all is the powerful, pulsating and majestic music, performed operatically with no dialogue between songs, except for a handful of lines at the crucifixion scene. For most in the packed house, the music even overpowered the frequent planes that roar over the Starlight Bowl on their way to Lindbergh Field.

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Amick Byram is compelling and sweet-voiced as Jesus and soars in the song, “Gethsemane,” in which he questions his destiny. As Judas, Jesse Corti lacks force in his early soul-searching scenes of indecision, but seems to grow in power after Judas decides to make his betrayal; his final song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” is wrenching.

Christina Saffran’s Mary Magdalene sings like an angel. There is no toughness of the one-time prostitute here, but you get a rich, full, sensuous voice and a face that you hate to see step out of the spotlight for even a moment.

P. L. Brown brings dramatic fury to the role of Caiaphas, the leader determined to bring Jesus to trial. Jae Ross captures the torment of Pontius Pilate, who doesn’t want to be the one with blood on his hands but, in the end, gives into the rising hysteria of the crowd that demands the crucifixion.

Robert Machray is the much-needed comic relief as King Herod, the king who mocks Jesus. When Reggie Phoenix sings the part of Simon Zealotes, you can hear the restlessness of a land of have-nots looking for a leader to liberate them.

The current production favors Biblical costumes (by Ray Delle Robbins), and the tone is distinctly reverential. The direction by James Rocco, who also choreographed the piece, moves from religious tableau to tableau. The evocative sets of ruined stairs and later a cross dramatically suspended in the air, designed by Michael A. Anania, are washed in dramatic lighting by Barbara Dubois. Working with music director and conductor Lloyd Cooper, Rocco taps into wells of passion from the splendid singing cast.

In all the attention given to Lloyd Webber, people often forget that in the absence of a book, it is Tim Rice’s intelligent, sometimes sardonic and often passionate lyrics that bring the story unforgettably up to date.

Still, in retrospect, it was “Jesus Christ Superstar” that catapulted Lloyd Webber to stardom. Not only did it spur a revival of his earlier effort “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” but it precipitated how pop opera was to take over Broadway in the form of “Evita,” “Cats,” “Starlight Express” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

But never mind Broadway. If anybody doubts that Lloyd Webber’s music taps into something irresistible in the local common consciousness, take a look at the box office for tonight’s SummerPops performance of the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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It’s a sellout.

“JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR”

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Original Broadway production conceived by Tom O’Horgan. Director and choreographer is James Rocco. Music director/conductor is Lloyd Cooper. Set by Michael Anania. Lighting by Barbara Dubois. Original costumes by Ray Delle Robbins. Technical direction by Larry Kane. Sound by Bill Lewis. Stage manager is Brett Finley. With Amick Byram, Jesse Corti, Christina Saffran, P.L. Brown, Jae Ross, Robert Machray, Mark David Miller, Reggie Phoenix and Fred Inkley. At 8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through Sept. 9. At the Starlight Bowl, Balboa Park, (619) 544-STAR.


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