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Jesus Christ Superstar | Fox Theatre

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theat_jcs.jpgVariously channeling an R&B singer, David Carradine in Kung Fu, and an aged cult leader, Ted Neeley's performance of Jesus has no raw energy, no urgency, no fire.






Through Feb. 3
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Whatever theological issues one can take with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, it's difficult to deny the rock musical's enduring popularity. A key to Superstar's iconic mythos is the film version, made with Webber's blessing in 1974, which amped up the political and social commentary, imbuing the action with hippie iconography; long hairs piling out of a school bus and setting up the ragtag accoutrements of a traveling show, rumbling imperial tanks on the horizon, a temple market stall selling bongs.

Despite or because of this added layer of Vietnam-era posturing (depending on your viewpoint), the film is a particularly visceral experience, intense and cheesy, exuberant and moving, raw and powerful. And the movie's power is driven by the performance of Ted Neeley as the titular superstar.

The current touring production of Superstar, performing at the Fox Theatre, has an ostensible advantage in the star power of Mr. Neeley, here playing Jesus on stage for the final time. That's got to be a good thing, right? Unfortunately, not so much, as Neeley's presence, in a weird reversal of expectations, proves to be the obstacle this show just can't get over.

Superstar deals with the last seven days of Christ's life, which should make for good drama, moving song, and a fulfillment of expectations. But it just doesn't happen in this production. Judas, played here by Corey Glover (of Living Colour fame), is serviceable enough, as is Tiffini Dodson as Mary Magdalene. Darrel R Whitney puts in a portrayal of Caiaphas that's good, but seems overshadowed by all the performances that came before it. Craig Sculli makes a nearly memorable turn as Pilate, caught up in forces he has no wish to involve himself with, posturing to hide his fear.

But the issue is with 64-year-old Neeley. Variously channeling an R&B singer, David Carradine in Kung Fu, and an aged cult leader, Neeley's performance of Jesus has no raw energy, no urgency, no fire. Whatever Jesus may be, savior or fraud, man or god, he is without doubt a man burning with an inner light that cannot be denied.

And since Superstar revolves around this central character, Neeley's performance hampers the entire production. The most striking scene of the evening, a portrayal of the begging cripples in "The Temple" that uses, to wonderful effect, actors under a giant piece of fabric, becomes an exercise in frustration because Neeley is gesticulating in the center of the action; he seems removed from the action around him, as if he's truly caught up in the delusion that he can talk to some unseen god.

The audience, however, seemed pleased to applaud Neeley's every vacant gesture and high note. It was as if the very negative thing that Judas sings of in "Heaven on Their Minds," a commitment to the man and not what he could stand for, was manifesting itself in this production. Cult of personality, indeed. | John Shepherd

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