If you don't happen to be Christian, and you weren't around in 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar may feel like a mind-freak. What, you may wonder, is happening onstage? What are Jesus and Judas arguing about? As the Jewish elite grumbles and Herod's concubines do kick-lines, Superstar seems increasingly half-baked, like a Fellini film smooshed into an acid-rock concert.
The problem is not the Civic Light Opera's production of Superstar, which showcases, as always, a battalion of local super-talents. The singing and dancing are Broadway-worthy. The acting is everything you'd expect of a "rock opera," for which lines are not spoken but rather shrieked, at ear-piercing pitches, in endless recitative.
The problem is this: If you're not dying to hear the Gospel According to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Superstar is a lousy show. Tim Rice's libretto is just complicated dialogue set to music, and Webber assigns his singers an impossible range of notes. Adding electric guitar to an orchestra doesn't make it better, only louder. And for people who don't live in beach movies, lyrics like "What's the buzz? / Tell me what's a-happening" do not stand the test of time.
Meanwhile, Jesus comes off as a whiny spaz, and Judas spends his stage time screaming into a microphone. In the great battle between Superstar and Godspell, the latter wins in every way.
But if you are Christian, or you did live in 1971, you may hear harmonies in Superstar that others can't. In the CLO program, actor bios end with "Gratitude & love to … Jesus Christ," or "Shouts out to his family, friends, and Lord for having a son." One bio concludes with "1 Corinthians 10:31." For some, Superstar is a rockin' revelation, a great symphony of Good News. If you really believe, Superstar gets resurrected every time.
Devotee or heretic, everyone will marvel at Jesus, played by Doug Kreeger. Kreeger's voice is, in a word, divine, and his likeness to the King of Kings might be mistaken for a Second Coming.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR continues through Sun., Aug. 14. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghclo.org.