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THEATER REVIEWS : Fading 'Superstar' : After Fascinating Start, Production of Play--Which Hasn't Worn Well--Becomes Muddled


SANTA ANA — The Professional Actors Conservatory's "Jesus Christ Superstar" at Rancho Santiago College begins so unusually that the audience can't help but be excited. There were titters (probably equal parts appreciation and dismay) during Sunday's--Palm Sunday, by the way--matinee as everyone took in director Robert G. Leigh's apocalyptic concept.

What they saw was a stage designed like a post-nuclear tomb, with a hodgepodge of artifacts, from Soviet missile warheads to classical sculptures, strewn about. Into this dank cavern dropped a few ropes, followed by a gang of "archeologists," who apparently stumbled into this ancient repository.

Their cautious excavation under way, a giant computer zapped them, initiating a "celebrant" program that somehow turned each member of the team into walking, talking and, yes, singing symbols of Christ and his apostles. These distant-future explorers then acted out the New Testament while the data base was pulling the celestial strings.

You have to give Leigh credit for this strangely creative, highly visual approach. These first moments are intriguing, especially as you put the odd images together with an understanding of the biblical story that inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's well-known musical.

Unfortunately, the fascination subsides too quickly, replaced by a riddle that doesn't have a ready answer. Leigh's notions are obtuse at best, inexplicable at worst. The program notes, which describe a "technologically dependent Dark Age" that has "mis-remembered Judeo-Christian mythology," didn't clarify things.

Leigh may have thought he needed to freshen this show, which becomes less and less satisfying as time goes by. Even when it was first produced in 1971, "Jesus Christ Superstar" was most notable for placing religion in a revolutionary format. Sticking Christ on a Broadway stage, and then backing his story with often dissonant pseudo-rock?

Some thought it blasphemous, others considered it iconoclastic trailblazing. But that glow of the new dimmed quite a while back. These days, the musical has to stand merely as one of Webber and Rice's most flip and most annoying efforts.

Pure vocal expertise doesn't always count for much in "Jesus Christ Superstar," a show that often substitutes screaming for singing. "Heaven on Their Minds," with its wrenched noisiness, can actually be hard to listen to. There are respites (the relatively tender "I Don't Know How to Love Him" is probably the most famous) but they are woefully few.

The mostly student cast has its share of troubles with the uneven score. While the performers attack the tunes hungrily (Michael Ambrosio's Judas just about chews on his tunes), it all just proves again that passion is not always a substitute for skill.

Set designer Chuck Ketter, however, brings much imagination to the Phillips Hall Theatre stage. There are unexpected little elements in almost every dark corner and bleak cranny; not everyone's idea of a spiritual landscape but compelling nonetheless.

* "Jesus Christ Superstar," Rancho Santiago College's Phillips Hall Theatre, 1530 W. 17th St., Santa Ana. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinee, 2:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $8-$10. (714) 564-5661. Running time: 2 hours. Michael Ambrosio: Judas Billy Baldwin: Jesus Di Burbano: Mary Mark Drake: Peter Vajdon Sohaili: Pilate Damon Carr: James Jeff King: John Scott Ruiz: Simon Zealots Vince Boston: Caiaphas Bil Barratt: Annas David Anderson Jr.: Herod

A Rancho Santiago College Professional Actors Conservatory production. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed by Robert G. Leigh. Musical direction by Diane King Vann. Choreography by Katherine Steadman. Set by Chuck Vetter. Costumes by Laura Deremer Bonsall. Sound by Justus Matthews. Lighting by Kevin Cook. Computer graphics by Michael Dennick.

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