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Culture : A Resurrection in Moscow for 'Jesus Christ Superstar' : The rock opera is playing to packed houses. This production has a uniquely Soviet twist.


MOSCOW — Hosanna or heresy? Jesus Christ, the Superstar that is, makes his post-Resurrection debut on a Moscow stage in a black leather jacket, straddling a motorcycle borrowed from the local Soviet militia.

The scene could hardly be considered orthodox, either politically or religiously, in the Moscow of old. In today's Soviet Union, however, where religion and Western culture are embraced as enthusiastically as they were once officially condemned, the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" is playing to packed houses at Moscow's Mossoviet Theater.

Twenty years after "Superstar's" spectacular debut in the West, Andrew Lloyd Weber's rock opera has been given new life in what once seemed the unlikeliest of places. Director Pavel Khomsky and an energetic young cast of dancing disciples have created a "Superstar" with a uniquely Soviet twist.

That "Jesus Christ Superstar" should now enjoy popular success with Soviet audiences is no accident. Religion, forcibly suppressed since the founding years of the Soviet state, is now enjoying a vivid revival among citizens of all ages.

In a recent nationwide survey where people were asked what figures would have "a major influence" on Soviet citizens in the year 2000, 58% named Jesus Christ. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was cited by only 26% of those participating in the poll and V. I. Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, by 36%, according to results published in Moscow News, a liberal weekly newspaper.

Signs of the religious revival are everywhere visible in the capital. Hare Krishnas chant outside the Soviet Defense Ministry. Posters advertise "faith seminars" by American evangelists. A Jewish cultural center opened with fanfare in Moscow. And peddlers sell Russian Orthodox trinkets on street corners.

In the last month, both the Rev. Billy Graham and the Dalai Lama spoke to crowds here. Pope John Paul II may visit the Soviet Union in the next year or two.

Communist Party bureaucrats and radical democrats alike, have been quick to sense that religion, once the vilified "opiate of the masses," may now be an ally in an effort to strengthen the moral fiber of a decaying society.

Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin was blessed by the Patriarch Alexei II at his recent inauguration. This spring, Yeltsin and Soviet Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov were shown on central television attending Orthodox services on Easter.

The search for something to fill the vacuum of a now-discredited official ideology and something to believe in during a time of great uncertainty has assumed new urgency for Soviet youth. The crowds of blue jeans-clad teen-agers who fill "Superstar's" audiences demonstrate that this rock opera taps and articulates the spiritual aspirations of the current generation of Soviet young people, as it did for American youth 20 years ago.

Most Soviet viewers of "Superstar" know of Jesus' life not so much from the Bible as from Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "The Master and Margarita"--a Russian classic that was long suppressed by the Communists, but which nevertheless enjoyed a wide underground audience in samizdat (literally, self-published) form. Until recently, the Bible was available to the public here only on the black market, and even today it is too difficult or expensive for many Soviets to obtain.

"I've never read the Bible," said theater goer Irina Kiryukhina. "The Jesus I know is from 'The Master and Margarita.' When I remembered the book and heard the music from 'Superstar,' I just knew I had to see this play."

Some of the dialogues in the Soviet version of "Superstar" are adapted from dialogues between Jesus and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate in Bulgakov's novel, in order to strike a chord with the Soviet audience.

"Superstar" has surprised believers because in contrast to the hierarchical and tradition-bound Russian Orthodox Church, the Jesus portrayed in the rock opera is a rebellious, anti-dogmatic figure who challenges all earthly authority.

Mossoviet's production comes almost too close to Soviet reality for some viewers. When three actors dressed in Soviet riot gear walk down the aisles in the first act, menacingly brandishing clubs, you can almost hear the audience draw in a breath and glance around nervously as if to say, "Hey, is this the real thing?"

Characters and scenes are also given different emphasis under Khomsky's direction, serving to reflect the Soviet context. In contrast with the original Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice production, for example, the role of Simon the Zealot has been enhanced, as it was in "The Master and Margarita."

"For us, Simon the Zealot is a key figure," Khomsky said. "He embodies many of the characteristics of Soviet crowds today. One minute they sing hosannas in the streets to their leader, their 'savior,' the next day they demand his head."

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