Still Christly after all these years
Ted Neeley, cast in the title role in the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973, was still at it Saturday (Feb. 13), in a touring production that stopped at the Milwaukee Theatre.
Neeley, at 66, pushes the bounds of the plausible in the vintage Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice rock musical. Neeley’s voice sporadically turned raspy, though it did warm up as the evening went on. He even hit some stratospheric rock-god notes (think of a Robert Plant wail raised two octaves). His best moments were in the end of the Gethsemane piece, where he argues with the Divine via a light show about his fate. Neeley handled the psychological depth of the moment with gravity that seems born of experience.
The most conflicted character, however, is Judas, played by John Twiford. In the Weber/Rice libretto, he is misguided but ultimately well-meaning. Twiford used his considerable vocal power to exude conviction, treachery, and even hallucinatory insanity as a suicide noose drops against a red sky. Sarah Hanlon, as Mary Magdalene, sang sweetly and clearly, and was an important stage presence as an endlessly devoted follower and aspiring lover.
The production moved along quickly from ensemble pieces to solos and scenes in sharply contrasting moods. The simple set comprised metal platforms and a tall bridge, which allowed action at various locations. Lighting altered the tone and time of day, and a white follow-spot set a heavenly glow on Neeley’s white garments.
The first half focused on character development and on setting off Jesus and his happy, freewheeling band against the jealous priest Caiaphas and his crew, dressed in ominous dark robes. The second half got down to business with the Last Supper and crucifixion. The one scene of overt hilarity was King Herod’s Song, in which Andrew Hartley, dressed in something like a purple leisure suit and accompanied by a giggling, chirping gaggle of tarted-up harem girls, had to decide what to do with Jesus. The partying Herod had no interest in this task; his foppish exuberance made the scene memorable.
This deep preceded the strangest and most surreal number in the showl: the title song, sung by the ghost of Judas, three heavenly hottie backup singers, and the rest of the company. The crucifixion followed, culminating with Neeley rising from the cross and flying up into the catwalk. At the very end, a giant version the Shroud of Turin unfurls. Theologically, make of that what you will.
Ultimately, Jesus Christ Superstar is a pop opera that plays like a live performance album, with scenes centering around catchy tunes. It is family entertainment that bobs lightly on the surface of issues of faith.