The play's hero did it only once, but the play has been doing it for 19 straight years. "Jesus Christ Superstar," Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1971 smash-hit musical, is in its latest resurrection at the Lisner Auditorium through Sunday.
This is the Washington stop on what is being billed as the show's 20th Anniversary National Tour, although simple arithmetic would seem to place us in the musical's 19th year. But who's to quibble? It's hard to argue with success, or with Andrew Lloyd Webber, the two being nearly synonymous. The composer of "Evita," "Starlight Express," "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Aspects of Love" knows how to wow an audience. And keep them wowed for two decades.
This musical has some miles on it. When "Jesus Christ Superstar" first appeared on Broadway, America was still trying to win in Vietnam, Richard Nixon (a man who knows a few things about resurrection) was in his first term as president, and the Baltimore Orioles won the pennant. In that simpler world of budget surpluses, people were scandalized by the idea of doing the last seven days of Christ's life as a rock musical. A generation later that reaction seems quaint. So, too, does the musical.
From the first whining fuzz notes of the electric guitar, we are transported back to a point where we realize that not all of Lloyd Webber ages well -- unless one thinks of, say, the rock group Aerosmith as grand cru. There are still the big, crowd-pleasing numbers, of course. Mary Magdalene's stirring "I Don't Know How to Love Him," beautifully rendered by Bertilla Baker, Jesus's (Stephen Lehew) tender "Poor Jerusalem," or the rollicking ensemble "Herod's Song," led by Patrick Lane. But at other moments, such as the scene where Christ is arrested, the score sounds like a collection of Famous Rock Music Cliches, something you'd order from a toll-free number flashed on late-night TV.
The mostly young cast does its best -- Bobby Lee Daye, Kent Dalian and Walter Winston O'Neil are notable for their energy -- and there are some first-rate voices: Alex Santoriello as Pontius Pilate and Bob Frisch as Caiaphas. But the production, now in its fifth month and 24th city, has a weary feel to it in the lead roles. Judas (Patrick Jude) seems to run out of gas in his Vegas-style "Superstar" number as his dancers, on automatic pilot, keep pumping away behind him. "Once I was inspired/Now I'm sad and tired," sings Jesus midway through the second act, and he looks it -- despite a coiffure that is eerily reminiscent of Julia Roberts's.
The polite, well-dressed audience, though, in a spirit of Christian forgiveness, didn't seem to mind these or other minor transgressions, such as tickets at $39. "I had to buy the cassette," one middle-aged woman remarked at intermission. "I wore out the grooves on the record." "Jesus Christ Superstar," after all, is part of the canon of rock musicals. And the converted don't need to be convinced.
Jesus Christ Superstar. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice. At the Lisner Auditorium through Oct. 21.