The eagerly anticipated 2003 North American Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, based on the 2000 Broadway revival and brought to the Triangle by Broadway Series South, blew into Raleigh Memorial Auditorium Tuesday night — and proceeded to dazzle, disturb, and (ultimately) delight its opening-night audience with its hard-rocking version of the final chapter of the Greatest Story Ever Told. At the final curtain, this powerful modern-dress version of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice's controversial 1971 rock opera — told from the perspective of Jesus' close friend, ardent disciple, and betrayer: the increasingly disenchanted Judas Iscariot — catapulted Broadway Series South patrons from their seats, for a lengthy and spirited standing ovation.
This revitalized 21st-century version of Jesus Christ Superstar — produced by The Really Useful Superstar Company, Inc., Nederlander Presentations, Inc., and McCoy Rigby Entertainment, in association with Terry Allen Kramer and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts — features a trio of divine performers — three rising young stars on Broadway — in the persons of Eric Kunze (Jesus), Lawrence Clayton (Judas), and Natalie Toro (Mary Magdalene).
Although it may dismay the most rigid of hard-right fundamentalists, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's decision to compare Jesus Christ's charismatic ministry in First Century Palestine to the meteoric career of a top early 1970s rock superstar is an apt metaphor. Just compare the adulation that The Beatles received when they led the British Invasion of the American pop charts with the hearty hosannas that echoed in Jesus' ears on Palm Sunday when he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
A charismatic actor and a singer of exceptional range, Eric Kunze hits all the high notes as Jesus. He is terrific as a tired and troubled Jesus, who knows he is in the shadow of the cross, but cannot convince his apostles that the end of his earthly ministry is so very, very near. (Superstar chronicles the final seven days of Jesus' whirlwind three-year ministry, and Kunze's compelling characterization demonstrates the highs and the lows of those eventful last days.)
Dressed in a radiant white shirt and slacks, Jesus stands out in this casually but colorfully dressed on-stage crowd of followers of The Way, curious residents of Jerusalem, dark-robed and openly hostile Jewish high priests and their sinister minions, and pumped-up Roman soldiers in 21st century riot gear, which includes helmets with tinted visors and body armor a la Darth Vader.
The Judas of Lawrence Clayton provides the perfect foil for Jesus; and the Mocksville, NC native gives an intensely human performance as a well-meaning member of Christ's inner circle who becomes more and more disenchanted as he realizes that Jesus will never pick up the sword and liberate Jerusalem and drive the brutal Roman occupiers out of the Holy Land. Once the truest of true believers, Judas becomes more and more angry and frustrated that Christ's kingdom is not of this world. And Judas does the worst of things, such as betraying Christ, for the best of (worldly) motives.
Dressed in red, with her sexy gown slit almost to the hip, short and buxom Natalie Toro makes a sizzling Mary Magdalene. Toro's smoldering version of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" is a real show stopper. Like Yvonne Elliman, who created the role of Mary Magdalene and made a big (and much imitated) hit out of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," Natalie Toro really knows how to caress a lyric until it purrs. Indeed, Toro's inspired phrasing makes this song uniquely her own.
Lawson Skala (Caiaphas) and Rocky Rodriguez (Annas) were suitably sinister as the outraged high priests of the religious establishment who watch in horror as Jesus' popularity with the crowds skyrocketed, and scheme constantly to have Christ put to death. Stephen Breithaupt gives a crowd-pleasing performance as troubled top Roman Pontius Pilate, who very reluctantly acquiesces to Jesus' crucifixion; and Barry Dennen contributes a rib-tickling cameo as a comic King Herod, who performs a wry Borscht Belt song-and-dance routine before sending Jesus back to Pilate.
Basing their staging on the direction and choreography of Gale Edwards and Anthony Van Laast, who mounted the 2000 Broadway revival, director Kevin Moriarty and choreographer Dana Solimando have recreated a Jesus Christ Superstar for the ages. The towering sets of scenic designer Peter J. Davison, the elaborate outfits created by costume designer Roger Kirk, and the artful illumination of the show by lighting designer Mark McCullough make this must-see presentation of Superstar a feast for the eye. And sprightly accompaniment by musical director/conductor Craig Barna and cohorts and the robust soundscape crafted by sound designers Jon Gottlieb and Phil Allen make this musical a feast for the ear as well.
Broadway Series South presents Jesus Christ Superstar Tuesday-Friday, Dec. 2-5, at 8 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 6, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 7, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $16-$66. Ticketmaster: 919/834-4000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/artist/843994. Group Sales: 919/231-4575 or http://www.priorityseating.net/. Broadway Series South: http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2003-2004/broadway.html#jcs. Really Useful Group: http://www.reallyuseful.com/shows/jcs/show_home.asp [inactive 5/04]. 2003 Tour Cast: http://www.reallyuseful.com/shows/jcs/castlist01.asp?pvar=226 [inactive 5/04]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=4880 (original production: 1971-73 and two revivals: 1977-78 and 2000). Internet Movie Database (1973 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070239/. Andrew Lloyd Webber: http://www.westegg.com/unmaintained/alw/. Eric Kunze: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=83884. Lawrence Clayton: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=35552. Natalie Toro: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?id=83991 and http://www.natalietoro.com/.