Vocals Almost Carry `Superstar'

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR Rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. At the Paramount through Jan. 27.

The director of the 20th-anniversary production of ``Jesus Christ Superstar,'' which touched down in New York after playing cities around the country, cut his teeth staging such epics as the ``Conan Live!'' action show at Universal Studios, and the ``Masters of the Universe'' tour.

That could explain why this heavily choreographed production is all spectacle and no warmth.

Even considering that this is a rock opera and not a religious drama, the story should have more impact than it does here. The score, which is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's best, is delivered with a speed and perfunctoriness that lessens its power.

The performers seem to be in a hurry to get to the next city. The staging is utterly lacking in distinction; the choreography, which consists largely of acrobatic gyrations, is even worse.

Lloyd Webber has distanced himself from this production, although he presumably doesn't mind the sellout business it has been doing throughout the country.

One of the hooks is that the production stars Ted Neeley as Jesus and Carl Anderson as Judas, both of whom starred in the 1973 Norman Jewison film version, and Anderson was in the original Broadway cast.

The two performers have weathered the years well. The former plays his role with an almost eerie possessiveness and strength, and the latter has lost little of his feral grace or powerful vocal ability. Another box-office lure is the presence of Dennis DeYoung (the former lead singer of the rock group Styx) as the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.

DeYoung's distinctive voice gets a cheer as soon as the audience hears it, and despite a few rock-star theatrics, he does well by the role. Other standout performers include singer Syreeta Wright (as Mary Magdalene), whose voice fairly scorches, and David Bedella, whose distinctive croaking as Caiphas is consistently amusing.

Rock operas were much in vogue in the late 1960s and early '70s, but most have sunk into obscurity. Not so this show, because of a score that, despite its relentlessness and length, is almost consistently melodic and memorable. Tim Rice's lyrics, although occasionally dated with hipster language, are almost as good. Despite being very much of its time, ``Jesus Christ Superstar'' has aged well.

Matters aren't helped by the size of the venue. The Paramount, which is typical of the theaters in which this production has played, has more than 5,000 seats and is an inappropriate site for such a production. Even from the vantage point of a very good orchestra seat, the show seemed distant.

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