Wednesday, January 9, 2008 | Do this. Watch this clip of the song “Gethsemane” from the 1973 film “Jesus Christ Superstar” starring Ted Neeley. At 3:05 seconds into the clip, Neeley lets loose with an awesome, rock-star scream as he sings.

Now imagine hearing that live.

Last Wednesday night, more than 30 years after that clip was made, I heard the legendary Ted Neeley live. Starring in the tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in San Diego through Sunday, Neeley held that same wailing high note longer than I could have envisioned.

Originally an audio-recording, “Superstar” was the original rock opera, using both classical and rock elements in the musical arrangements. The music and lyrics, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, dramatized Jesus Christ’s final week of life and his crucifixion. In 1971 the “Superstar” musical opened on Broadway to mixed reviews and caused some controversy, obviously due to the touchy subject matter. In 1973, a motion picture was made of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Ted Neeley was nominated for two Golden Globes for his ground-breaking performance as Jesus.

Gentle and graceful, Neeley skillfully encapsulates the role of Jesus. He’s soft-sounding and a little scratchy voiced during quiet songs, but he roars like a lion when provoked as in the wrenching “Gethsemane” number where Jesus demands answers from God. Neeley, world renown for playing this role on and off for decades, proved he has mastered the part; musically he hit and maintained the crazy high notes in songs, and theatrically with the climactic crucifix scene.

Though centering on Jesus, Judas’ role in “Superstar” shares the spotlight equally. The production opens with Judas, originally an apostle of Jesus, fretting over Jesus’ growing masses of followers. It’s an important role as Judas becomes narrator for part of the show. As Judas, Corey Glover hit the stage at full throttle, wowing the audience with his explosive and impassioned portrayal of a man tortured by doubt. Glover characterized Judas’ psyche with each song, illustrating Judas not as wicked but as human. Glover’s absolutely riveting contribution was priceless. (Trivia: Glover and his band “Living Colour” had a hit in the late 1980s/early 1990s with the song “Cult of Personality.”)

The story unfolds as Jesus’ popularity reaches frightening proportions and high-ranking priests, who have gotten wind of this, decide Jesus must be killed. The ensemble cast’s energizing performances boosted the entire pace of the production. The priests unnerved the audience with their sinister presence and the manic disciples of Jesus delighted with their chorus of “Hosanna.”

Supporting roles included Tiffini Dodson as Mary Magdalene. Sweetly-voiced Dodson held her own in a duet with Neeley and carried the hit song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” both tenderly and capably. Aaron Fuksa’s turn as King Herod was a real crowd pleaser. Dressed in Crocs and a silk bathrobe, Herod’s number adds some comic-relief to an otherwise heavy story.

Special mention goes to Craig Sculli’s ferocious Pontius Pilate. Angry, ashamed and too weak to save Jesus, Pilate makes the final order for the crucifixion. Sculli’s searing performance oozed formidable personality.

With only an expansive steel bridge on stage, the simplicity of the sets showcased the complexities of the music and story. Effective lighting: beams of light, starry nights and angry red backlights added richness to the sets.

Well-worth the price of admission, this moving production of “Superstar” lives up to it’s billing as Ted Neeley’s “Farewell Tour.”

P.S.: Jeers to the man in the row behind me who loudly sighed, “OK!” during the crucifixion scene.

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