Two years after presenting a powerful production of "Godspell," Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities tackles the "other" major musical based on the teachings and death of Jesus - Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera, "Jesus Christ Superstar," at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.
And, once again, the company comes through with a winner.
Not as easily accessible to the uninitiated as "Godspell," because of its hard edge, dark tone and frequently fast pace, "Jesus Christ Superstar" remains a high point in the careers of Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, who were in their early 20 s when they wrote it.
Originally created as a concept album, which was eventually staged on Broadway and as a film, "Jesus Christ Superstar" remains more an aural experience, depending more on powerful lead vocalists and solid orchestration than flashy visual elements.
And that's where director Stephanie A. Coltrin and company excel.
Despite faltering on costumes and choreography, this remarkable cast of "Superstar" newcomers and veterans, driven by Coltrin with passion and verve, exposes the work's emotional core. The blistering pace never wavers, so the two-hour journey seems to come and go in a flash.
Unlike "Godspell," the focal point for "Jesus Christ Superstar" is Judas (Josh Tower), whose opening song portends the death of Jesus (Eric Kunze), and the hand he will play in his crucifixion.
Other key figures during Jesus's final week are Mary Magdalene (Karole Foreman), Pontius Pilate (Kevin Bailey) and Roman high priest Caiaphas (Jody Ashworth).
Webber and Rice intended to show Jesus as a human being, and to provide a sympathetic side to Judas, both of which come through clearly. Coltrin provides subtle moments, such as Jesus hugging Judas at the last supper, to accent the concept that Judas is fulfilling a necessary, albeit vilified, role.
Coltrin also uses an apron during a few key songs, extending it in front of the orchestra to more closely connect to the audience.
Tower's performance is reminiscent of the late Carl Anderson - the quintessential Judas. His pitch is spot-on, and he pushes his voice to the point of breaking to squeeze as much pain and frustration out of the songs as possible.
Kunze, who sparkled as Jesus several years ago in a national tour, remains at the top of his skills. Kunze's Jesus isn't otherworldly, but filled with doubt and fear.
One of the more interesting casting choices is Foreman, who as Mary is more sensual and expressive than the typical portrayal. Her rendition of the show's most notable song, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," is soulful and filled with compassion.
And, as he did in "The Full Monty," Harrison White shows his comic skills as Herod, with the production's lone light moment, "King Herod's Song."
Frequently, Webber's score is sadly diluted to a few keyboards, but the CLOSBC 16-piece orchestra, complete with horns and wind instruments, fleshes out the complexities of the fusion of guitar-driven rock and soaring classical melodies.
The musical triumphs more than overcome a few shortcomings, starting with Christa Armendariz's costumes. Long leather coats for the Romans seem to match Christopher Beyries's modern industrial set, but the cargo pants and natural, beige fabrics for Jesus and his disciples seem more like an odd blend of first-century period garb and 1960 s hippie.
"Superstar" doesn't lend itself to much organic dance, and that's evident in Marc Oka's choreography, which mostly looks like a retread of cheerleader routines.
But with such impressive vocal offerings, it hardly matters.
CLOSBC's "Jesus Christ Superstar" is relevant and exhilarating.
Jeff Favre is a freelance entertainment writer based in North Hollywood.
Jesus Christ Superstar
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with 2 p.m. weekend matinees, through May 10.
Where: Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach.
Tickets: $40 to $60.
Our rating: 3 stars.