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Harlequin's secularized Jesus

"Everything's Alright," but...

The Messiah has returned.

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I had every reason to believe I'd love director Linda Whitney's production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I admire her work, enjoy the play, and spend far more time thinking about Jesus than many hardcore Christians. I was so sure I'd love it that, with my wife at a Salt-N-Pepa show elsewhere, I invited a Christian minister friend to see the play with me. He's a theater geek and, as you might expect, a fan of the musical and its lead character. Whitney and her technical crew have obviously outdone themselves in terms of spectacle and energy. So why were my friend and I so disappointed?

The show starts promisingly enough, with its translocation of first-century Judean unrest to the Occupy and Arab Spring movements around the world. It's a terrific concept. In fact, it was the concept of the recent London revival. This production looks a great deal like that one, right down to its staircase set and Jesus's white-shirted costume. In a notable break from that production, Whitney cast Antonía Darlene as Herod Antipas; Darlene plays the tetrarch as an Oprah clone. Now we're talking! I just wish a sloppily misspelled graphic hadn't undercut the joke.

How should an actor play Jesus, one of the most charismatic men who ever lived? It's impossible, right? So at some point Bruce Haasl has to buckle down and play a specific quality of Jesus. That choice should be informed by the overall concept, but I'm not sure the production knows exactly what it wants to say. We couldn't make out its seemingly secularized message-but then again, we couldn't hear many of the show's lyrics over the band. There's no Easter in this Jesus story, so we're left pondering the death of a sulky, unremarkable Son of Man while his apostles carry his body offstage. Neither I nor my minister friend felt any emotional impact from the loss of this Jesus, and that should be the easiest trick in the book.

Certainly there's amazing work on display. I enjoyed Jessica Low's rendition of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and Josh Krupke's Pilate. Christian Doyle does his wailing best with Judas, though that character's stated motivations are insufficient to explain his betrayal. The ensemble is energetic to a person, and Bruce Whitney's rock combo is as skilled as we've come to expect. Some audience members were completely blown away by this show, and I have to respect that. In fact, I hope you'll have their reaction rather than mine.

It occurred to me partway through "I Don't Know How to Love Him" that it encapsulates the quandary faced by modern Christianity. We all admire Jesus and his message; we simply disagree on the parts we like most and how to put them into practice. This production takes no sides.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, 8 p.m. July 25-27, Aug. 2-3, Harlequin Productions, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia, $20-$34.50, 360.786.0151

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