Forty years after he first starred in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Ted Neeley can still let out a high-pitched rock wail.
While his voice isn’t as strong as it was when he starred in the 1971 Broadway rock opera or the 1973 film, the 66-year-old gave a moving performance as the Messiah at Thursday’s opening show at the Gallo Center for the Arts.
He’s still agile and can keep up with the considerable physical demands of the part, which require him to be pushed to the ground, whipped and crucified on a nightly basis.
From a purist perspective, he shouldn’t still be up there — he is twice the age Jesus was said to be when he died. But it’s understandable why Troika Entertainment cast him in its North American tour. There is sentimental value in seeing the star of a beloved movie in person.
Neeley’s voice showed some strain in the first half of Thursday’s show but he picked up steam in the second half. His finest moment was his passionate rendition of “Gesthemane.” His ascension gave me chills and made me impressed with his bravery.
Based on the Gospel of John, the show covers the last seven days of Jesus’ life, including Jesus’ preaching, the last supper and his appearances before King Herod and Pontius Pilate.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hard-driving score and Tim Rice’s modern lyrics are still appealing and make you want to dance in your seat. The show started out after all as a hit pop album with songs that were played on the radio. One person sitting behind me in the theater couldn’t help but sing along with the cast.
Director Dallett Norris takes a minimalist approach to the production, substituting smoke and spotlights for elaborate sets. The performers mostly dress in biblical robes with a few fun hippie accessories.
Other than Neeley, all the cast members look like they’re in their 20s. John Twiford is passionate and surprisingly sympathetic as Judas and offers a commanding versions of such songs as “Heaven on Their Minds” and “Superstar.”
Sarah Hanlon melts hearts in her angelic ballads “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Could We Start Again Please.” Darrel R. Whitney shows off a booming bass as the priest Caiaphas. Andrew Hartley is hilarious as the bombastic, self-absorbed King Herod. Benjamin Van Diepen shows compassion and a soulful voice as Pontius Pilate.
Under music director Michael Mitchell’s guidance, the orchestra sounds as great as any touring rock band. The only problem on Thursday was that occasionally , the musicians overpowered the singers, making it hard to understand all the lyrics.
Before the performance, a handful of protesters from a Hughson church stood outside the Gallo Center protesting the musical as blasphemous. When questioned, they said they had never seen it.
The audience seemed to have no complaints, rewarding the cast with an enthusiastic standing ovation, with sustained cheers for Neeley.