Hearing the music of Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time, in 1970, was thrilling. The concept album featured Deep Purple's Ian Gillan, an incomparable hard-rock singer who also gave throaty passion to ballads, as JC, and the theatrical-voiced British actor-singer Murray Head as Judas. Subsequently seeing Jesus Christ Superstar on stage, then on the screen (it was a 1973 film) was a disappointment, even if the Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice score remained a dynamic one.
To revisit Jesus Christ Superstar now, 40 years later at La Jolla Playhouse, is to be reminded of the ferocity, cleverness and occasional beauty of its music. Yet it's still not wholly satisfying theater, even in the inventive hands of Des McAnuff, director of this Stratford Shakespeare Festival production that's already bound for Broadway. At La Jolla, McAnuff previously breathed new life into The Who's Tommy, the original album of which was released a year before the Jesus Christ Superstar record. The Playhouse's former artistic director presides over this new JCS's technical dazzlements (notably an electronic-ticker backdrop that evokes a Times Square-like Judea), athletic choreography (by Lisa Shriver) and a subtle departure in plot from traditional productions of the show that suggests Jesus (Paul Nolan) and Judas (Josh Young) each have a weakness for Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy).
The contemporizing of the setting is accomplished without distraction, and nothing visually is as over-the-top as the devices in Norman Jewison's '73 film (remember the tanks?). Nolan, Young and Kennedy are each sincere and physically attractive, but none radiates exceptional charisma. Kennedy isn't aided, either, by his solo turn on the title song, when he takes the stage as if clad for American Idol. Having the most fun is Bruce Dow, whose “Herod's Song,” a ragtime hoot of considerable camp, is played to the hilt.
For all its early flash, this production mirrors the original album's denouement in tone—one of reflection and understatement. It's not quite prayerful, but close.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through Dec. 31 at La Jolla Playhouse. $58 and up.
An American Christmas: The Hotel del Coronado's ballroom is the setting for an evening of holiday music, dance, comedy and food, presented by Lamb's Players Theatre. Opens Dec. 11. $115-$160. lambsplayers.org
A Christmas Carol: Dickens' classic Christmas tale is dramatized inside the “haunted” confines of the Whaley House in Old Town. Opens Dec. 13. $8. whaleyhouse.org
Annie: “Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya….“ Arf arf. You know the rest. Opens Dec. 15 at the Star Theatre in Oceanside. $7-$15. startheatre.biz
Emilia's Sugarplum Nightmare: The Three Kings encounter St. Nick in a musical comedy produced by Muse Theatre Co. Opens Dec. 10 at Liberty Hall Theatre in National City. $12-$18. talent%u2028toamuse.com
La Pastorela de Valor: The account of the shepherds' sojourn to Bethlehem for the birth of the Christ child, from Teatro Mascara Magica. Opens Dec. 15 at Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza. $10-$15. lyceumevents.org
Mistletoe, Music & Mayhem: Comedy and song, holiday-style, from five performers. Opens Dec. 8 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. $20-$25. northcoastrep.org
Ragnarok: The theater workshop Circle Circle Dot Dot stages a show co-written (with Katherine Harroff) by members of San Diego's live-action role-playing community. Through Dec. 10 at 10th Avenue Theater, Downtown. $10-$20. circle2dot2.com
Tata Twins: The Remix: A comedy of mistaken identity produced by the Grossmont College Theater Department. Through Dec. 10 at the campus' Stagehouse Theatre. $12. grossmont.edu
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Ion Theatre's production of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning work by Tony Kushner (the two parts are presented in repertory) is stalwart and sobering, at once immense in its sadness and ultimately optimistic. The cast, most playing dual roles, is a formidable one. Through Dec. 11 at the Lyceum Theatre, Downtown. $30- $50. iontheatre.com
The Great American Trailer Park Musical: The San Diego Rep's Sam Woodhouse directs this one-act spoof of trailer-park “culture” that also includes a rather predictable love triangle story. The prevailing everything-goes raucousness bogs down in a heapin' helpin' of double takes and double entendre. Through Dec. 11 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, Downtown. $33-$57. sdrep.org
The Who's Tommy: Company Youth Theatre stages the rock musical written by Pete Townshend and La Jolla Playhouse's Des McAnuff, an adaptation of The Who's landmark album. Through Dec. 11 in the David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. $16. sdcjc.org
Leato be Latina: Ethnic and sexual labeling collide with raucous hijinks in this play by Enrique Urueta. The goings run into trouble when a hand puppet gets too many lines and the play takes on the feel of an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch. Through Dec. 11 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. $20-$33. diversionary.org
Late Nite Catechism: Audience members find themselves in a Catholic nun's class in this one-woman comedy that will celebrate its 20th-anniversary year in 2012. Fridays through Dec. 16 at Welk Resort Theatre in Escondido. $10-$30. welktheatersandiego.com
Greetings!: Catholic boy, Jewish girl, Christmas Eve meeting with the parents. A comedy by Tom Dudzick. Through Dec. 17 at the Epicentre in Mira Mesa. $15. miramesatheatreguild.org
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown: The “Peanuts” characters come alive in the Broadway revival version of a musical by Clark Gesner based on Charles Schulz's gang. Through Dec. 17 at Scripps Ranch Theatre. $10-$25. scrippsranchtheatre.org
Life of a Sofa: A sofa is the consistent thread in 10 vignettes, each set during Christmastime. Through Dec. 18 at Broadway Theater in Vista. $17.50. broadwayvista.com
Little Women: Peter Clapham's play is an adaptation of the well-loved novel by Louisa May Alcott. Through Dec. 18 at Patio Playhouse in Escondido. $7-$15. patioplayhouse.com
The Messiah: This play with music recounts the story of Christ's birth. Through Dec. 18 at Community Actors Theatre in Rolando. $12-$14. communityactorstheatre.com
The Santaland Diaries: Joe Mantello reprises his adaptation of David Sedaris' essay about an elf working at Macy's during the holidays. Through Dec. 24 at New Village Arts, Carlsbad. $20. newvillagearts.org
Festival of Christmas: Lamb's Players Theatre renews an annual family-friendly holiday tradition, with music. Through Dec. 30 at Lamb's Players Theatre, Coronado. $28-$60. lambsplayers.org
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!: An Old Globe Theatre holiday tradition returns, directed by James Vasquez. Through Dec. 31 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. $24-$57. oldglobe.org
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play: In true holiday tradition, Cygnet Theatre presents the timeless story of George Bailey, as recounted from Studio A of WCYG Radio. Through Dec. 31 at Old Town Theatre. $29-$54. cygnettheatre.com
Jesus Christ Superstar: The landmark rock opera written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, directed by Des McAnuff. Next stop after La Jolla: Broadway. Through Dec. 31 at La Jolla Playhouse. $58 and up. lajollaplayhouse.org
Jingle Bell Rock: The Alley Cats usher in the holidays with a cappella classics and comedy. Through Dec. 31 at Welk Resort Theatre in Escondido. $48-$73. welktheatresandiego.com
Some Lovers: The story of “The Gift of the Magi” gets a retooling thanks to a musical collaboration between Burt Bacharach and Steven (Spring Awakening) Sater. Through Dec. 31 at Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park. $35 and up. oldglobe.org
Shotgun Wedding Anniversary: How else can a miserable 25-year marriage end but in murder? Presented by Mystery Cafe, it's ongoing at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. $59.50, including dinner. mysterycafe.net