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In-your-face updates complement this dark, angry musical, which retains emotion, power

Jesus Christ Superstar rocks on the E.J. Thomas Hall stage.

Thirty-three years after its Broadway opening, the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has an enduring relevance and emotional pull. We’re talking about the greatest drama of all time — the last week of Jesus Christ’s life — set to classic rock music.

The musical opened in the 1970s, but the current tour, which originated in Los Angeles, is far from dated. The new production is an in-your-face, urban rendition with a punk edge. The apostles are underground, subversive types — scaling underpass walls and meeting in secret under bridges — wearing camouflage, studded belts and spiked hair.

The goal of actor Eric Kunze, in the title role, is to humanize Jesus. Kunze succeeds by offering us a Christ who begins with dignity and calmness but loses more and more control of his life as the musical progresses.

Kunze’s singing is wonderfully magnetic. He makes going from a rock scream to a whisper sound easy. His physical acting also amply portrays his character’s suffering.

The lighting is powerful, too, especially the glow that surrounds Jesus. It and the performers provide all the stage magic this show needs.

On opening night, understudy Todd Fournier provided the most interesting characterization as Judas, the deeply conflicted betrayer of Christ. The potent-voiced Fournier expertly portrays Judas’ anger, confusion and helplessness in fulfilling the prophecies.

Natalie Toro also is an incredible performer as Mary Magdalene. She gives her character a tenderness and sensuality that are both lovely and mesmerizing.

This rock opera, which began as a concert oratorio, is sung all the way through. A problem in sound balance in the opening numbers, however, made hearing the cast’s lyrics difficult, but this improved as the show progressed.

The musical — dark, angry and despairing — was controversial when it debuted in 1971. Today, it doesn’t come close to the bloody horror of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

This is a theatricalized telling of Jesus’ last week, and isn’t meant to literally follow the Bible. Even so, each time I see the show and hear the music, I pick up on new details and more biblical references. There’s so much here, you’ve got to hear it more than once. The pacing is lightning-quick, as Jesus and his apostles are caught up in a volatile whirlwind. In a cool update, the moneylenders in the temple become evil-looking stockbrokers in dark suits on a trading floor.

The show’s menacing high priests are out to destroy ‘Jesus mania.’ They’re led by the incredible bass Lawson Skala as Caiaphas and his tenor sidekick Jeffrey Polk as Annas.

The show’s only weak number Friday night was “Pilate’s Dream”, where Raymond Patterson had a problem with pitch. It was gone in Pilate’s vicious numbers “Pilate and Christ” and “Trial By Pilate”.

Director Kevin Moriarty’s staging is starkly powerful, especially in a scene where Judas’ hanging transforms into a scene where Jesus is tied by the wrists in the same spot.

Amid the darkness, the glitzy, vaudeville-style “King Herod’s Song” provides some fun relief. Daniel Guzman wears a duncelike crown as Herod during his ridiculous song and dance.

Darlesia Cearcy, Alaine Kashian and Jeanine Meyers offer the evening’s greatest dancing in a surprising offering of “Superstar”. These soul girls are costumed in sexy, red wet leather with garter belts and thigh highs, and appear with the red-jacketed Judas.

Posted on Sunday, 21st November, 2004

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