Few actors are as identified with a single role as Ted Neeley, who has been performing the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar for nearly four decades. The good news is that Ted Neeley still gives a star-worthy performance in this iconic role. The better news is that Ted Neeley is surrounded by a talented cast in a first-rate touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar now making a brief visit at the Warner Theatre.
It has been a decade since I last saw Ted Neeley in Jesus Christ Superstar. The ageless wonder still has the chops for the role, with his charisma most evident in the Garden of Gethsemane and the crucifixion scenes. His voice may not be quite as pure as it once was, but he can still deliver power vocals that most performers can only achieve in their dreams. Interestingly, his portrayal of Jesus has become more placid and spiritual over time, yet his presence is strong enough that his authority over his followers seems natural.
Both Neeley’s performance and the show are aided by a mostly stark and somber approach taken by director Dallett Norris. The simple black metal set and an outstanding lighting design by Rick Belzer focused attention on the performers and the famous rock score by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, which still sounds current and moving. The performance is unusually effective at reaching the emotional core of the story, especially in the interaction between Jesus and Judas and at the final crucifixion/ascension sequence. The only distracting note involves the frequent times where Jesus is seen mouthing dialogue to His Father.
James Delisco gave a fine performance as Judas. Delisco is a very expressive performer and he’s not afraid to sing slightly off the notes to make the musical dialogue more convincing. He effectively demonstrates the character’s inner torment through emotional and even physical pain. At the end, his rendition of “Superstar” was a nice blend of motion and attitude.
The vocal performances were strong throughout the cast. Cristina Sass demonstrated great pipes as Mary Magdalene, nailing numbers such as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with a warm soprano that was both strong and sweet. Darrel R. Whitney was impressive in hitting the difficult rumbling low notes required of the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas. As Annas, Caleb Shaw was an effectively complement, egging Caiaphas on with his higher-pitched voice and his insistent drive. Craig Sculli is convincingly haunted while delivering “Pilate’s Dream.”
Special praise must be given to Mark Baratelli’s fabulous comic turn as King Herod. He takes the role to another level with a deliciously timed mix of nonchalance and flamboyance, supported by a group of women from Herod’s household.
The whole cast gave an earnest and focused performance. The group dance number for “Hosanna” was enthusiastic and the scene in the temple included an assortment of chaotic decadence depicted in movment and dance.
One of the few troubling aspects of the show involved recurring difficulties with sound levels. These problems happened often enough to be distracting, although the underlying rock music was performed with solid virtuosity by the small band.
If you have never seen Jesus Christ Superstar before (and many young people in the audience apparently hadn’t), you may never find a better opportunity to enjoy the show. Even if you have seen the show previously, the story and the music never grow old when performed at this level of excellence.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Dallett Norris
Presented by Warner Theatre, Broadway Across America, and Nicholas Howey for Troicastar, LLC
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
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