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'Superstar' makes transition from controversial play to nostalgia


If the rock opera format of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" seemed a bit controversial back in 1971, watching the show now is more of a reassuring nostalgia trip.

As the current revival at Towson State University makes clear, "Superstar" still rocks. And, for better or worse, it still has tunes you can't get out of your head.

This production aims to put its own stamp on the material by making Judas (Shawn Doyle) a somewhat moodier and more introspective fellow than is usually the case in this oft-produced play. Similarly, this Pontius Pilate (Christopher Millard) is truly troubled over the court case he must oversee. His trailing toga is like a guilty conscience dragged across the stage.

But aiming for more depth psychologically in a superficial musical seems self-defeating. Although this skillfully composed show incorporates incisive lyrics by Tim Rice, its all-singing, no-dialogue structure doesn't leave a lot of room for character development.

Still, Judas is an appealing bad guy and he gets some of the best songs. It takes Shawn Doyle a while to immerse himself in Judas' angst and aggression, but eventually the actor rocks with the right levels of hostility.

That Judas is a more interesting character than Jesus in "Jesus Christ Superstar" initially might seem an oddity or even a major flaw. On second thought, it's not odd at all. Jesus is like a Boy Scout who knows he's on the right path, while Judas has volcanic emotions erupting inside his conscience. His is the journey with more dramatic power.

Still, the emphasis on Judas in "Jesus Christ Superstar" sometimes makes Jesus seem like an extra at his own execution. You can't blame Sean Kennedy for portraying Jesus as a nice guy, but the actor's vocal and physical presence aren't assertive enough at key moments in the story. Faring better is Liz Boyer's sultry embodiment of Mary Magdalene. She knows how to hold the stage, and she has complete assurance as she sings two of the show's most memorable numbers, "Everything's Alright" and Don't Know How to Love Him."

Among the supporting actors in a cast list of biblical proportions, Brian P. Chetelat stands out as a campy King Herod. Watching this bulky actor gyrate in front of a chorus line of slender, flapper-like prostitutes is a secular pleasure you won't mind confessing.

Traffic management in full-ensemble scenes such as those involving Herod is astutely handled by director and choreographer Tom Polum. The mob movement is at its most effective in a scene where lepers massed on a flight of steps seem linked together in their suffering.

Down in the pit, music director Michael Decker needs to get a fuller sound from his forces. The orchestra is thin when it should be strident. After all, this rocking score calls for vulgar confidence in the playing.

'Jesus Christ Superstar'

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Thursdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., through July 29

Where: Fine Arts Center Mainstage Theater, Towson State University, Osler and Cross Campus drives

Tickets: $18; $16 for TSU faculty, staff and alumni, students and senior citizens; $15 group (15 or more) rate

Call: (410) 830-ARTS

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