Absolutely stellar performances by North Carolina Theatre guest star Eric Kunze as Jesus, NCT regular Ray Walker as Judas, and guest star Brandi Chavonne Massey as Mary Magdalene make the Raleigh, NC-based theater’s magnificent revival of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice’s 1971 Broadway and 1972 West End hit Jesus Christ Superstar a rock opera for the ages. This five-star production, superlatively staged by director/choreographer Greg Ganakas and associate choreographer Debbi Fuhrman, also features high-octane instrumental accompaniment by musical director and conductor* Edward G. Robinson, and a hard-rocking NCT orchestra led by flashy guitarists Drew Lile and Bernie Petteway, and simply dazzling scenery and costumes from Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, Texas.

Told from Judas’ jaundiced perspective as a First Century social activist and would-be revolutionary, Superstar portrays Jesus as a rock-star prototype on a mission, with an ecstatic and ever-growing fan following and frowning Roman occupiers and local religious authorities lurking on the outskirts of the crowd, ready to pounce when the people’s Messiah makes a misstep. Judas expects Jesus to transform his ragtag following into an army, and lead it into Jerusalem to throw out the Roman oppressors of the Jewish people. When it becomes clear that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and He does not see himself as the leader of the Jewish Revolt against the Romans, a deeply disappointed Judas betrays his erstwhile Lord to the Jewish high priests Caiaphas (the marvelous rafter-rattling bass Elmore James) and Annas (the more-than-capable Ric Ryder).

Rising Broadway star Eric Kunze gives a passionate performance as Jesus, capturing Christ’s charisma and hitting all the high notes—some of which seem impossibly high. Ray Walker, another Broadway actor who is artistic director at North Carolina Theatre’s Conservatory, adds his own star turn—a rock-star turn—as Judas; and African-American Broadway actress Brandi Chavonne Massey gives a cool and cerebral performance as Mary Magdalene, putting her own soulful stamp on “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

Daniel C. Levine and Jason Wooten are excellent as the impetuous Peter and the more-restrained Simon, and Glenn Seven Allen gives a regal performance as nervous Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. But it is NCT regular Vinny Genna who steals the show with his campy caricature of King Herod as an outrageously limp-wristed hedonist having a royal hissy hit that his bacchanals have been interrupted by the Jesus Problem.

Although Jesus Christ Superstar is a non-traditional and occasionally irreverent retelling of the last days of Jesus Christ, most mainstream Christians are hip enough to go with the flow, especially for a production as star-studded and brilliantly conceived and smartly staged as the current North Carolina Theatre presentation, under the guidance of director/choreographer Greg Ganakas and associate choreographer Debbi Fuhrman. Don’t miss it.

*Edited/corrected 2/28/08.

The North Carolina Theatre presents Jesus Christ Superstar Tuesday-Friday, Feb. 27-March 2, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 3, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 4, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $25-$75. Progress Energy Center Box Office: 919/831-6950. Group Sales (for groups of 10 or more): 919/664-5204 or http://www.nctheatre.com/group_sales.html [inactive 3/09]. Note: Arts Access will audio describe the 2 p.m. March 3rd performance. North Carolina Theatre: http://www.nctheatre.com/. Jesus Christ Superstar (Really Useful Group): http://www.reallyuseful.com/rug/shows/jesus/index.htm [inactive 11/08]. Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber: http://www.andrewlloydwebber.com/ (official web site) and http://www.westegg.com/unmaintained/alw/ (Andrew Lloyd Webber Online) [inactive 3/08]. Sir Tim Rice: http://www.timrice.co.uk/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=4880. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070239/. Ray Walker: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=76168. Eric Kunze: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=83884. Brandi Chavonne Massey: http://www.chavonnemusic.com/site/ [inactive 6/07] and http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=90123. Greg Ganakas: http://www.gregganakas.com/ [inactive 5/07].