A correction was were made to this review on Aug. 8, 2003.
When the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera made its groundbreaking transition from monster album to Broadway musical in 1971, Ben Vereen stole the show as Judas. In the majority of subsequent productions, Jesus has been routinely overshadowed by his betrayer. So the big news at the Wilshire is Christ’s restoration from second banana to superstar, thanks to the outstanding voice and imposing presence of Eric Kunze in the title role. As directed by Eric Moriarty, “Superstar” is often more style than substance, with a strangely impersonal quality that prevents total involvement, but Kunze provides a centerpiece that holds it tightly together.
When Judas (Lawrence Clayton) first appears and expresses grave doubts about the unhealthy fanaticism surrounding Jesus, he cuts a commanding figure and sings “Heaven on Their Minds” with spine-tingling strength. But Clayton doesn’t enunciate clearly, and key lyrics don’t come across. Nor does he dig beneath the tortured surface of a disillusioned supporter who knifes a friend in the back and suffers fatal guilt.
Natalie Toro contributes a more fully rounded character. Her Mary Magdalene is sexual and sensitive, and “Everything’s Alright” is rendered with richness and warmth. Without minimizing the reality of her prostitute past, she projects maternal compassion, and her “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is a touching statement of confused affection.
The Disciples are a lively, anonymous group, capable dancers and singers who spin and kick on cue. They surround their leader during his last seven days, but there’s no heat, no sense of wild, obsessive passion. Notable exceptions are Simon (Todd Fournier) on “Poor Jerusalem,” and Peter (James Chow), who denies Christ and conveys the cowardice behind his disloyalty.
Jesus’ parade of enemies are well cast. As Caiaphas, Lawson Skala has a low, ominous bass voice that contrasts ideally with Kunze’s exciting higher register. He sings “And Jesus Must Die” with darkly compelling menace. Stephen Breithaupt’s Pontius Pilate is equally galvanizing, charging “Trial by Pilate” and “Pilate and Christ” with roaring energy. Barry Dennen’s King Herod is a campy delight.
Show’s physical production straddles the fence between thick ’70s smoke and post-millenium visuals of Enron, Viagra, Tyco and ImClone stock quotes, strenuously attempting to link past and present but not quite achieving either. Roger Kirk’s costumes possess the same eclecticism, ranging from Pilate’s toga and laurel wreath to Darth Vader-type garb for the Roman guards. Even more bizarre are outfits for the all-important “Superstar” number, in which a trio of girls in red vinyl leotards, garters and black stockings call to mind refugees from Kander & Ebb’s Kit Kat Club.
Fortunately, Webber’s melodies — written when he was just 23 — burst through, radiating a youthful joy and experimentation that disappeared with his later, more inflated scores. Tim Rice’s unpolished words have the same looseness, a willingness to break barriers. Their funky freedom enables us to shrug aside overblown trimmings and savor Kunze’s Jesus as he tears up the hall on “Gethsemane” and “The Temple,” making us feel the conflicts assaulting a man caught between heaven and earth.