As a dramatization of the man from Nazareth’s final week on Earth, “Jesus Christ Superstar” would seem most appropriate as an Easter-time attraction. No matter; this new touring version comes to Beverly Hills with enough reverence and respect (with one glaring exception) to brighten any believer’s Christmas season, coupled with exceptional vocal performances and many visual delights.
Helmer Dallett Norris avoids the tacky abstract modernism of many a “Superstar” (including the 1971 Gotham preem and 1973 movie) in favor of conventional Biblical silhouettes in a pleasingly muted color palette from designer Fabio Toblini, with a tableaux of Jesus’ passion and death suitable to a Hallmark card line. Embracing the story’s New Testament roots infuses the drama with more timeliness and relevance than, say, a tour some years ago that boasted “Star Wars” imagery.
Norris also applies a satisfying through-line to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic song cycle, beginning with a slo-mo prologue in which Jesus (Ted Neeley) raises from the dead one of the faithful slain by Roman guards. As a first entrance establishing his majestic mien and frightening, otherworldly power, it’s hard to beat.
Judas (a keen, sensitive James Delisco) becomes perfectly understandable in this context. He’s small in stature and wisdom but large in monomania, his terror of the consequences of Jesus’ increasing delusions of grandeur eminently explaining his bitter betrayal.
Double the age of the role he first assumed on film, Neeley carries a granite-chiseled, almost audio-animatronic frame among the faithful, sauntering and laying on hands like a visiting politician at a county fair.
This Jesus is too comfortable, too accessible. His ad libs work against Norris’ sophisticated conception of a Jesus whose selfless agony is mistaken for self-aggrandizement by those who proceed to cut him down. (He also chats with God, who weirdly seems to be sitting in the Wilshire’s balcony.)
Still, when dispatching Jerusalem’s moneychangers and hypocrites, Neeley’s blast on “MY temple!” tells us there’s much of the ol’ rocker left, and he’s appropriately austere and imposing from Gethsemane on.
Other performers never escape the bland (Cristina Sass’ Mary Magdalene is a Vegas lounge singer devoid of any emotion other than the beatific) or the overdone (Craig Sculli’s Pilate throws all his punches in his first scene). Beyond the generic hugs and touches throughout, the ensemble throws itself into Arlene Phillips’ dance numbers with gusto, even when blankets replace palms for Jesus’ Jerusalem arrival on what Phillips must think was Schmatte Sunday.
The nadir is “Herod’s Song,” ridiculously set to a mambo beat. It’s become pro forma to play the king as a screaming queen, although the original concept album’s version is brash vaudevillian and not at all effete. But even more offensive than Mark Baratelli’s over-the-top swishery is his utter disconnection from the story: This Herod shows no interest in Jesus’ miraculous abilities, just in ad libbing and pulling focus to himself. It’s a disgraceful performance in an execrable bit of staging.
Thankfully, Rick Belzer’s lighting wizardry and smoke effects restore gravitas, the mob jeering as Jesus is scourged below, each whipcrack accompanied by a superstar’s spotlight. A backup trio and vinyl-clad Judas — free to be charismatic at last — rev up the title tune to highlight present-day Jesus, only to be replaced by an affecting Crucifixion and a series of visual coups it would be a sin to spoil here.
Every word of Rice’s lyrics resonates in Duncan Robert Edwards’ sound design as clearly as if on one’s iPod.