From Styx to the Boards for DeYoung : Pop music: The singer, who's the guiding force behind Styx and now plays Pontius Pilate in a production of 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' is juggling roles in theater and rock.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Theater or rock 'n' roll?

Stalled at a career crossroads, singer Dennis DeYoung is struggling to decide on one or the other.

DeYoung, the guiding force in the rock band Styx since it was formed in 1963, has been immersed in theater since early this year, touring the country as Pontius Pilate in "Jesus Christ Superstar," which opens tonight for two weeks at the Universal Amphitheatre. The show co-stars Teddy Neely and Carl Anderson, who were in the play 20 years ago when it was the amphitheater's inaugural presentation.

Which way is DeYoung leaning?

"Theater is great but you're talking to a real rock 'n' roll guy," replied DeYoung, 46. "I try to imagine life without it but I can't."

But the reality is that a theatrical career makes more sense at this point. His "Superstar" role has triggered some theater-related opportunities. One, he said, is the possibility of composing a theatrical show. The other, however, is concrete: DeYoung just signed a deal to record a solo album of Broadway tunes for Atlantic Records.

"I'm heading into a Barbra Streisand mode," DeYoung said, chuckling. "I'm not sure yet what I'm going to sing on the album, but more contemporary music--not the old Rodgers & Hammerstein stuff."

This album won't be a stretch for him. His strong, smooth, passionate voice always seemed suited to theatrical singing. His rock style is linear--bypassing grunts, wails and excessive distortions.

But for a while, DeYoung may be limited to theatrical singing. Styx, on A&M; Records since 1975, no longer has a deal to record new material. The label, though, will release a CD retrospective in late summer, featuring three new songs.

A rock powerhouse in the late '70s and early '80s, the group was inactive from 1983, following the departure of guitarist Tommy Shaw, until a 1990 reunion. Meanwhile, DeYoung recorded some solo albums for A&M; in the late '80s, but none were hits.

In 1990, the time seemed right for a Styx reunion. Shaw was invited to record the album, "Edge of the Century," and go on tour, but he passed on the project and signed with Damn Yankees, a rock group featuring Ted Nugent, instead. The album was made without Shaw but didn't do well enough to warrant a contract extension.

"We loved being on tour and getting out in front of the fans again," DeYoung said. "But right now I'm not sure what's going to happen with Styx."

Meanwhile, theater beckons. Though DeYoung admits he's long harbored a secret desire to do theatrical singing, he didn't grow up as a theater regular. "In my neighborhood in Chicago, nobody ever heard of theater," De Young said with a laugh.

Later, he became a theater fan. But singing in theater never crossed his mind until he got an offer last year from his sister-in-law's new husband, Forbes Candlish, who happens to be "Jesus Christ Superstar's" executive producer.

"I gave it some thought and decided I'd like to try singing something I didn't write for a change," DeYoung said.

DeYoung said that vocally he didn't have to do anything special to prepare for the role, but the transition from rock shows has required some adjustments.

"I'm used to being on stage all the time," said DeYoung, who sings three songs in the show. "But in theater you do a number, go off for a while and then come back."

So does the relatively low level of adulation.

"Rock fans love their bands--idolize their bands," he said. "You get to love that feeling and what they give to you--this incredible, nonstop outpouring of enthusiasm. In theater, people come to see a property. You don't get the level of enthusiastic attention you get from a rock audience."

He may not even hear theater ovations too much longer. Though "Superstar" is booked into 1995, he may not last through the summer. "I have to start working on my solo album this year," DeYoung explained.

There's something else on his agenda.

"I want to keep Styx going--an album, a tour--something," DeYoung said. "What can I say? Styx is in my blood."

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