Capsule Reviews

Jesus Christ Superstar When Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway in the early '70s, the rock opera caused quite a controversy. Many traditional Christians thought the show was sacrilegious. It does, after all, have lots of lines like "I don't know how to love him...He's a man. He's just a man." These days, such lyrics slide by without so much as a murmur. In fact, at the opening of the show's national tour at the Hobby Center, some audience members were moved to tears by the production's end, when Christ was crucified. Maybe they were all in the Christmas spirit. The story, which follows the last five days of Christ's life, is a weepy affair, after all. It tells the tale of Judas's horrible betrayal of Jesus, set against the big swelling music Webber is so infamous for. But this new production is short on Christ's good deeds and long on angsty new-millennium rage. As reimagined by director Kevin Moriarty, the story has been all tricked out in pop-culture darkness. Dressed in a black leather coat, Lawrence Clayton's Judas stalks about like an angry Shaft. The priests who are so terrified of Jesus' power look like rejects from The Matrix, and Raymond Patterson's Pontius Pilate looks like a New Age Nazi. Only Eric Kunze's Jesus still looks like a beatific brown-haired hippie in his white gauzy clothes. Nobody, Christian or otherwise, is going to get much in the way of New Testament love from this show. But judging from the opening-night audience, it's clear that some just enjoy being reminded of why Christmas is such a big deal in the first place.

A Pure Gospel Christmas Most Christmas shows have all the holiday spirit of a month-old fruitcake. But A Pure Gospel Christmas, now running at the Ensemble Theatre, is as fresh and spicy as a bubbling-hot apple pie. The story about a church choir trying to get in the mood for their Christmas show isn't what makes this production so fabulous. The real excitement comes from the Ensemble's fine cast of singers, who lift up their voices in happy, fulsome praise of the season. Headed up in grand style by Anthony Boggess-Glover, who plays the choir leader, the cast is by turns funny, sweet and exuberant -- in other words, a joy to behold. Conceived and directed by Leslie Dockery and David A. Tobin, the show works a little bit like a television special. The characters are all types: There are the young folks who want to jazz up the Christmas pageant, and the old-biddy dowagers who want to keep it all clean. And never mind the sometimes cheesy arrangements of songs like "Holy Night" and "Joy to the World" -- all the music is delivered with such conviction that the audience can't help but break into hand-clapping praise of the good energy emanating from the stage. Even the band, directed by Lydia Alston in a bright red hat, is fun to watch. Unabashedly religious, the show gets to the heart of what Christmas is all about, celebrating what should be a wonderfully joyful day. Through December 31. 3535 Main, 713-807-4300.

The Spitfire Grill Stages Repertory Theatre's production of The Spitfire Grill could be fine holiday fare. James Valcq and Fred Alley's folksy melodrama may be a little morose at the beginning, but it ends up as sappy and sweet as a sugar plum. Based on Lee David Zlotoff's film, the story features an ex-con who rides into Gilead, Wisconsin, one wintry night and proceeds to redeem herself and everyone around her. As the town's secrets unravel, your heart is supposed to swell. But somehow the embers in this Grill never catch fire. And this show, which is so rich with potential heat, ends up going down like a cup of tepid tea. The biggest problem is that the cast never fully embraces the grieving emotional lives of the characters. And as directed by Brad Dalton, there's a tentative, hand-wringing reserve to the production that undermines the emotional extravagance of the story and music. Especially bland is Holland Vavra as Percy, the ex-con who comes to town. With her tough-girl jeans and deliberately mousy hair, Vavra certainly looks the part. But this young actor never ignites enough passion or rage on the stage to make us believe that Percy has suffered as much as she has. And when we get to Act II, when the ex-con reveals why she was sent to prison and what motivates her angry outbursts, the scene fails to develop the emotional depth needed to ground this tremulous tale. Most theaters break out the sappy productions during the holidays. But in this show, the gooey stuff never gets a chance to flow. Through January 9. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

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Lee Williams