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Jesus Christ Superstar

Signature Theatre brings back an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Nicholas Edwards (center) stars in the title role of Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Joe Calarco, at Signature Theatre.
(© Margot Schulman)

When it first appeared in 1971, the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar took the theater world by storm with its unconventional take on a biblical tale. Familiar 20th-century attitudes and language were embedded in the ideas and the libretto (with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice). The entirely sung-through rock musical focuses on the psychology and mental struggles of Jesus Christ and other notable biblical characters.

Now, Signature Theatre is mounting its own production of Superstar, one that feels and sounds big in a wholly new way. All the iconic songs are there, but the physical space in which they occur is spare, the stage is pared down to a few props and projections. What comes through most clearly in this production is the sense of the boisterous and adoring community that surrounded Jesus of Nazareth in his final few days.

Judas begins the musical with "Heaven on their Minds," stressing his fidelity to Jesus and bewailing Jesus' blatant refusal to heed the authorities. He is afraid that the Roman officials will punish Jesus for speaking his mind and turning so many people to his way of life. Once Judas decides to betray his master and give away his presence with a kiss, he is struck with unforgivable self-loathing. His suicide is followed by Jesus' trial before Pilate, which is followed by the Crucifixion. Although there is a lot of brutality in the musical, the worst elements are symbolic: When Jesus is lashed, for instance, there is no real whip, just the counting of lashes; he is not mounted on a cross, just given a crown of thorns.

There are three groups of characters in Superstar: First, Jesus (Nicholas Edwards), Mary Magdalene (Natascia Diaz), and Judas Iscariot (Ari McKay Wilford); second, the Apostles; third, the officials, including King Herod (Sherri Edelen), Caiaphas (Thomas Adrian Simpson), and Pontius Pilate (Bobby Smith). What gives Superstar its dramatic tension is that – although the audience knows that things will not end well for Jesus – the struggle between the officials and the followers of Jesus is always an ongoing push-pull action.

Edwards is brilliant as Jesus, showing many moods and emotions. He appears as a fearless leader, a frightened prisoner, a man of God, and a man who is nothing but human. His most moving solo, "Gethsemane," admits that he is scared to do God's bidding. Edwards sings the plaintive melody slowly and passionately, as though he is actually experiencing melancholy and praying for guidance.

Diaz is the perfect Mary Magdalene. Her main solo, "I Don't Know How to Love Him, is delivered at a measured pace and with intense feeling. She is an integral part of the staging of "Everything's Alright" and "Could We Start Again Please?"

In his introductory song, "Heaven on Their Minds," Judas makes it clear that he has missed Jesus' real message. He reveals that he is looking only for a worldly goal, not a heavenly one. When he sings, "I just want us to live," Wilford's clear, bright tenor shines. However, though he is a good enough actor, his words sometimes could not be heard above the seven-person orchestra directed by William Yanesh, seated on a balcony just above the stage.

Edelen is delightful as the notorious King Herod. Her "King Herod's Song" is one of the high points in the show as she turns Herod into a vivacious singer backed by an enthusiastic boy band that's ready to lift and transport her as well. Smith is appropriately vicious as he questions Jesus' intentions in "Pilate's Dream." And Simpson seems to have been made for the part of Caiaphas with his deep basso profundo.

Joe Calarco directs with much attention to detail and credibility. The relatively small stage at Signature is placed at the center of the audience. Luciana Stecconi's elemental set includes eight marble gray movable benches, four upright, freestanding elements on each side of the stage that act an entrances; and six seven-foot tall black candle holders. Occasional projections by Zachary Borovay give a sense of first-century buildings and events, like the Last Supper.

Frank Labovitz's costumes reflect a blend of modern and timeless sensibilities. Jesus wears black jeans, a collarless white shirt, and sandals. Mary wears black boots and a black tunic covered by a gray shawl. Karma Kamp's sensational choreography brings back moves that were popular in the 1970s, though a lot of the dancing that accompanies this Jesus would not look out of place on a dance floor in 2017.

The story of Jesus has never been an easy one to make believable. But with its insistence on framing Jesus as a mortal, rather than a god, and the musical's dedication to the importance of the community around Jesus, this Jesus Christ Superstar makes the story not only plausible, but also enjoyable to watch.