Friday Night: Ben Vereen in Jesus Christ Superstar

The setup: Trying as hard as they can to mess things up, the production team can't do ultimate damage to Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice's (lyrics) first international smash hit (1971) that centers around the last seven days of Christ. The show, a pop opera (thoroughly sung through), possesses great genes and is impervious to mucking up, but, Lord, how they try.

The execution: If anyone should be crucified at The Musical Theatre of Houston, producers of this two-night stand, it would be the sound designer, although mercifully, no name is mentioned in the program. This is the worst miking in the theater in a long time -- voices drop out or refuse to be broadcast; the amplification is garbled and full of static, the balance between stage and orchestra (when it's there at all) is so out of whack as to be nonexistent. By an act of God, only Sam Brown (a finely sung, dramatic Jesus) and showbiz veteran Ben Vereen (the original Judas on Broadway, but now in cameo mode as Pontius Pilate) come through clearly. You want to hear Tommie Harper as Judas because he looks so good in the role with his zoot suit pants, corn rows and sleeveless vest, and has the restless energy of Shaft, but he's about 50 percent unintelligible through that hideous sound system. It's a shame of biblical proportions.

Director/choreographer Aaron Callies stumbles through the action, stuck in ruts when the background projections turn monotonous and his stage designs go slack waiting for something to happen. Dillon Wright as a campy King Herod straight out of Rocky Horror brightens up the piece immeasurably, making his indelible scene shocking and tacky. No one else really registers, as they seem rudderless as to what they're doing or why they're doing it. Sir Andrew's music, on the other hand, vibrates and positively shines, played by a sumptuous 17-piece orchestra under maestro Jacob Carr. This we can hear loud and clear, thank God.

The verdict: Never pass up an opportunity to see the legendary Ben Vereen, even when he's surrounded by such an uneven show. Brown passes the unenviable test of a wailing, brooding, rock star Jesus with dignity intact (he certainly looks the part). His clarion voice scales Webber's dangerously high tessitura like a champion mountain climber. The others may be good, too, but we'll never know, not with those deaf ears on that sound board.

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