“Jesus Christ Superstar” devotees in the audience can be seen singing along with the new blitz-paced production at Signature Theatre, and why not? The youthful swagger of the impossibly young Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 rock score triggers waves of nostalgia from aging hippies, even as director Joe Calarco’s modern-dress cast (lots of blacks and grays and whites) marches around the cross-shaped stage in attitudes of modern protest.
You wouldn’t compare it to the botched Pepsi ad, but the civil-unrest touches that Calarco unleashes, particularly in a video montage of religion-driven international strife, don’t make this a politically reinvigorated “Superstar.” But it’s not at all ungainly, either, and frequently speeds down the highway at 95 mph, with its well-drilled ensemble blissing in primal ecstasy that dangerously feeds on itself. There’s a populist warning in the show’s edge-of-sense fervor, but then misinterpreting a messiah has always been the story.
What you really want to know: Can they sing it? “Superstar” inaugurated Lloyd Webber’s long career of overtaxing singers, and there’s a reason Ted Neely played Jesus in the 1973 movie and then onstage for decades — he had a miracle screech. Calarco hasn’t quite lucked out with mind-blowing vocalists. As Jesus, Nicholas Edwards has matinee-idol appeal and a strong voice that nails some of the stratosphere-shattering top notes, but not all.
Trickier is Ari McKay Wilford’s sneering turn as Judas, who, as always, is ripped by mixed feelings. Wilford is a good singer who even strums guitar from time to time, but the acidity of his Judas prods him to roughly roar too many vocal lines. The ungoverned fury incinerates his performance.
Still, Jason Lyons’s lights gorgeously carve the rock show haze, and music director William Yanesh’s seven musicians so expertly drive this score that you’ll find yourself nodding along. The squealing guitars, funk bass lines and rollicking organ are right on, and choreographer Karma Camp gets her ensemble artfully raving and hopping up and down the movable white benches on Luciana Stecconi’s set (with the audience surrounding the stage). The groove is deep, and if the vinyl’s worn thin on your LP, this musical performance will kick-start your memory but good.
You’ll even get ultra-vivid supporting performances from a nice mix of Signature veterans and emerging D.C. talent. Natascia Diaz is as fine a Mary Magdalene as one could hope for, soulfully crooning “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” to two acoustic guitars before the arrangement swells. (As always, Diaz dances like a dream, too.) Sherri L. Edelen is a magnificently sarcastic King Herod, though you’d prefer it if she weren’t tossed like a salad by chorus boys before having to wind up for a big vocal finish, and Bobby Smith is a savvy, icy, steely-voiced Pilate in a sleek gray suit.
The plush feel of the ensemble extends to the sinister bass of Thomas Adrian Simpson, the shrill tenor of Sam Ludwig and the sturdy vocals from Kara-Tameika Watkins as the thuggish officials angling to undercut the public mob’s hero — really, all through the tireless, tightknit crew that moves like a unit through this concept album show that was never meant to be a show. Calarco feels free to treat the iconic Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice song cycle as a quasi-concert, with actors seizing microphones and playing the songs while playing their characters.
It doesn’t fully free “Superstar,” but does anything? What impresses more and more as time goes by is the undimmed, brazen creative energy of Lloyd Webber’s dense songs — dinosaur rock melodies that soar and churn, goading singers toward near-impossible (okay, impossible) heights. Signature’s show may look like now, but it’s still essentially a quirky but durable blast from the past.
Jesus Christ Superstar, lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Joe Calarco. Costumes, Frank Labovitz; sound design, Ryan Hickey; projections, Zachary G. Borovay. With Michael J. Mainwaring, Awa Sal Secka, Vincent Kempski, David Landstrom, Calvin McCullough, Solomon Parker III, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Chris Sizemore, Harrison Smith and Korinn Walfall. About two hours. Through July 2 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets: $40-$114. Call 703-820-9771 or visit sigtheatre.org.