Josh Young as Judas Iscariot with members of the company in Jesus Christ Superstar, at the La Jolla Playhouse through December 31.
  • Josh Young as Judas Iscariot with members of the company in Jesus Christ Superstar, at the La Jolla Playhouse through December 31.
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‘What’s buzz? Tell me what’s a-happening!” “When do we arrive in Jerusalem?” “Will no one stay awake with me?” “Did Mohammed move a mountain, or was that just PR?” “Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake?” “What’s it all about?”

No musical, ever, asks as many questions as Jesus Christ Superstar. Tim Rice riddles his lyrics with perplexity. Jesus’ followers know where they’ve been. But it’s “a strange thing, mystifying,” and they haven’t a clue what’s coming next. Judas questions the motives of the man they follow and the talk of godhead: “Do you think you’re what they say you are?” Even Jesus wants to know, “Why should I die?”

In the New Testament, the characters are archetypal. Judas will betray with a kiss, Peter will deny, etc. But in the musical, they’re struggling in the moment. Seven days blur past. Little do they know, until the end, that the man they follow, for millions, will be the Answer.

When Superstar hit Broadway in 1971, reviewers called it a rocking opera; no, overhyped; no, said protestors carrying signs outside the theater, heathen blasphemy! The most repeated word was “irreverent.” Tim Rice’s lyrics spoofed the familiar story in ways guaranteed to irk. But what was irreverent 40 years ago has been superseded by the pointed probing of Michael Baignet’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail (source of The Da Vinci Code) and studies of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hamadi Library, and the Lost Gospels.

The Des McAnuff–directed version, now at the La Jolla Playhouse, has pared away most of the original’s youthful prankstering. Actors even deliver punchlines factually. Behind the Vegas glitz and an electronic ticker going backward in time, the show is much more reverent than ir-. It might even make some converts to the faith.

It’s as if McAnuff took Judas’s observation to heart: “If you strip away the myth from the man, you will see.” He’s “just a man,” says Mary Magdalene. And everyone wants to push his story in their direction. Judas fears Jesus has gone too far; Simon Zealotes (a zealot) says not far enough (“add a touch of hate at Rome”). Caiaphas wants him in pieces; lepers want to be made whole. Pontius Pilate would love to straddle the fence; only there isn’t one. McAnuff has staged the story premyth: it’s “the Making of the Gospels.” Everyone’s semidefined and fallible, including the Nazarene.

And after the fact — as in McAnuff’s The Who’s Tommy — superstardom engulfs the original story.

Almost from the beginning, two traditions have fought over who Jesus was. One claims “son of man” (an extraordinary human being); the other, “son of God” (a deity). Following Tim Rice’s lead, McAnuff frames the production with spectacular externals, as when a large, back-lit cross dotted with kitschy yellow lights descends. But center stage, Paul Nolan plays Jesus as the son of man. Nolan’s minimalist performance calls attention to his eyes: a stare both knowing and quizzical. And like the Jesus in Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the closer Golgotha nears, the more the doubts arise.

Nolan handles the famous musical soliloquy “Gethsamane” with vocal ease. And it doesn’t take long to be certain that all the singers, in this Stratford Shakespeare Festival production, will belt the music with top-notch chops. Lee Siegel cuts loose with “Simon Zealotes” (“Christ you know I love you. Did you see I waved?”). Jeremy Kushiner (Pilate), Bruce Dow (Herod Antipas), and Aaron Walpole (Annas) “rock the cynics” with their deliveries. And Marcus Nance’s Caiaphas sings with a bass that would make tubas tremble.

Comparisons may be odious, but they help establish latitude and longitude. And whoever plays Mary Magdalene, in the minds of the faithful, is going up against Yvonne Elliman’s iconic renderings of “Everything’s All Right” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Chilina Kennedy’s Magdalene doesn’t seem to mind. She gives the songs a light, country lilt, devoid of vibrato, and makes them seem brand new.

Along with the Times Square ticker and videos projected on a rear screen, the production has a then/now quality. The Apostles dress in drab browns, like Middle Eastern refugees; the priests wear long, dark-chocolate-colored leather coats. For the explosive “Superstar,” Judas — the brilliant Josh Young — and the cast don gaudy, Glitter Gulch outfits and blast away. (Superstar actually works as a holiday musical; it despairs about the true spirit of Christmas getting lost in the tinsel of commercialism.)

Amid all the pyrotechnics, it’s easy to overlook the production’s technical achievements. In particular, the balance between Rick Fox’s hot, 14-piece band and the singers is near perfect.

From afar, Robert Brill’s design looks like the skeleton of a large box set. Often metallic bleachers slide on and around it. But when lit by Howell Binkley, the mechanical means disappear. The musical is “through-composed.” Songs follow songs with almost no dialogue. You could say that McAnuff’s work and Lisa Shriver’s choreography are “through-directed.” Scenes evolve with near constant movement. Time speeds up. Days become hours become minutes. The theatricality is extraordinary. ■

Jesus Christ Superstar, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice

La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive

Directed by Des McAnuff: cast: Paul Nolan, Josh Young, Chilina Kennedy, Brent Carver, Bruce Dow, Mike Nadajewski, Marcus Nance, Lee Siegel, Aaron Walpole; scenic design, Robert Brill; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Jim Neil; choreography, Lisa Shriver; musical director, Rick Fox

Playing through December 31; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010

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