The legendary Ted Neeley resurrects his 1971 performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Orange County Performing Arts Center through January 13th. This musical was the first produced collaboration for the legendary writing team Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Chronicling the last seven days of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, this theatrical masterpiece broke ground by using the rock opera musical format, which was found to be questionable at the time by the same evangelical churches that now use electric guitars and drums in their worship venues today.
The show opens with a short overture as we see Jesus perform a miracle healing, followed by Judas worrying about the consequences of their growing movement. Judas and the audience watch the last days of Christ’s life unfold throughout the rest of the musical as we both try to determine whether Christ was really the Son of God or just another man.
We watch Christ enter Jerusalem to the catchy tune “Hosanna,” where the jubilant crowd lowers colorful towels instead of real palm branches. Their pastel costumes sharply contrast the black robes of Ciaiphas, the high-ranking Jewish priest who feels threatened by Jesus’ ability to inspire his mob of followers. Ciaiphas (Darrel R. Whitney) had a noticeably strong bass voice in the ensemble. King Herod (Aaron Fuksa) was quite entertaining in his bathrobe, offering a surprisingly comic moment before a serious crucifixion scene. In fact, the entire musical ensemble of this production was top-notch.
The real star of this musical, besides Jesus Christ, is Ted Neeley as Jesus Christ. It was actually a performance that grew on me as the show progressed. At first, I was a little disappointed by his portrayal of Jesus in the opening numbers as such a calm and unenergetic individual. It was this acquired expectation that made his transformation into furious rage during “The Temple” and also while questioning the omnipotent plan of his heavenly father in “Gethsemane” such a delight. Neeley’s pitch-perfect screams during both numbers brought the loudest applause of the night. Equally unforgettable is his painfully realistic portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion, which caused a woman sitting behind me to cry.
The set consisted only of a simple steel catwalk, with a star-filled night and the successful use of beams of light really setting the emotional mood. The Bible talks about those in the darkness trying to hide from the light. Immediately after his betrayal (and a dynamic solo by Corey Glover), a memorable use of light finds Judas trying to escape the stage, but beams of light continually turn on to block his exit. Neeley often stares into the back spotlight and speaks silently as if he is communicating directly with God. A few memorable special effects left the audience as quiet as a Good Friday service.
By ending with the crucifixion, the show never directly answers the question of whether Jesus was the Son of God or just a man. It is clear that in this resurrected production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Jesus is indeed musically alive!
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