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THEATER REVIEW: "Jesus Christ Superstar" is another winner

La Jolla Playhouse offers earplugs on your way into the theater. The pre-show announcements notes that “if you’d like to try a soothing lozenge, feel free – our band will drown you right out.”

It’s Des McAnuff’s Broadway-bound restaging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” stopping by the former artistic director’s old Playhouse stomping grounds to work out a few more kinks before the March Broadway opening. The show plays through Dec. 31 at Mandell Weiss Theatre.

It’s been 40 years since the show first played Broadway. That run generated controversy, pickets and negative letters to the editor for its irreverence, its treatment of Jesus as man rather than god, and its interpretation of Judas as more tragic figure than traitor.

McAnuff updates and puts yet another twist on it, playing up lyricist Tim Rice’s concept of the show as a romantic triangle between Jesus, Mary and Judas.

A CNN-like “news” scroll running across the set takes us back in time from 2011 to Judea in 33 AD. Two huge stage-high ladders flank the stage, its industrial-look set featuring two movable stair sections, the whole lit by garish white light. Roman soldiers in black march ominously, carrying long metal-look lances.

Into this Roman-dominated but largely locally run Middle East comes Jesus (Paul Nolan), bringing an anti-establishment message of doing good rather than ill and dedication to others rather than self.

He seems a pretty ordinary guy, but his followers sense more, as do the increasing crowds who come to see him as he makes his way to Jerusalem for Passover.

The harlot Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy) is puzzled at her own emotional response to him – after all, she sings, “he’s just a man” – yet she feels compelled to serve him.

Jesus’ friend Judas (Josh Young), operating like a chief of staff, warns that the Romans will crush anything that whiffs of insurrection; he fears that the increasing crowds indicate that “you’ve begun to matter more than the things you say” and warns that “they’ll crush us if we go too far.”

His decision to betray his friend is seen at least in part as a desire to keep the movement from being wiped out.

This production, developed in Canada at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival where McAnuff has served four years as artistic director, boasts a superb repertory cast headed by Nolan, Young and Kennedy.

Young’s Judas hits all the right notes – both vocally and theatrically – as the conflicted man whose betrayal will hasten the deaths of both men.

Nolan presents a haunted Jesus bemused by his fame, somewhat surprised by Mary’s attention, saddened by the all-too-human sleeping of his friends in the hours before his arrest, and wishing desperately that God could “take this cup away from me.”

Kennedy’s Mary has a lovely voice that can wail when required, but her transformation is inward as she contemplates her attachment to this Jesus.

“Jersey Boys” alumnus Jeremy Kushnier’s Pontius Pilate seems completely at ease in the role he inherited last week, when Brent Carver withdrew because of vocal strain. He also has a lovely baritone voice.

Marcus Nance impresses with a basso profundo high priest Caiaphas that I could happily listen to all night. What a voice!

For comic relief, it’s hard to beat Bruce Dow’s King Herod and his sly, taunting vaudevillian “Herod’s Song,” in which he dares Jesus to “prove to me that you’re no fool/walk across my swimming pool.”

The eleven-piece orchestra is terrific and uses the original orchestration, which allows no applause breaks and keeps the show moving.

If I were to complain about anything, it would be occasional unnecessary excess such as the flogging scene, in which each blow adds an accumulating neon red stripe of light flashed across the set in the manner of the earlier “news” scroll.

But my complaints are minor. I’d advise you not to miss this fine production.

About that offer of earplugs: If you, like me, are a lover of this show, don’t bother. You won’t need them for the first half. They do crank up the decibel level in the second act, but I only had to cover my ears at the very end.

The details

“Jesus Christ Superstar” plays through Dec. 31 at Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets call (858) 550-1010 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.