ROCK OPERA Jesus Christ Superstar Lyceum Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
Sir Henry Irving would doubtless have savoured the irony in our having to wait until the second coming for the reopening of his Lyceum Theatre. But imagine his confusion upon entering the newly refurbished auditorium (and contrary to advance reports, it is neither bright nor garish but rather subdued, musty, like an old theatre) to discover the audience seated but work apparently still in progress. Primitive wooden scaffolding shrouds the stage boxes and proscenium, the elaborate gilding visibly decayed and decaying as Sir Henry's pride and joy appears to vanish into an unfinished excavation. The remains of a Roman arena (designer John Napier) have been hewn from a backdrop of crumbling earth and rock. We're digging out the past.

1971, to be precise. The year of Jesus Christ Superstar. The two long-haired, flared-trousered Englishmen who wrote it called it a "rock opera" (quaint, eh?), and though its tone remains very much of its time, its message deeply rooted in Sixties youth culture, its insidiously memorable tunes sometimes too sweet, too innocent (or even too cheesy) to be true, the visceral impact of it still feels remarkably immediate. If you're of that generation and you don't get a buzz from those wailing guitar riffs, those quasi-Gospel singalongs, if that monster modulation that sees out the post-hippie anthem "Hosanna" doesn't get you in the solar plexus, then you were born out of your time.

And that's the first thing to be said about this knock-out revival. It's as if the director Gale Edwards has somehow freeze-dried the piece, kept faith with it, preserved its innocence, its energy, its common touch. The excavation metaphor is a good one. We find it as we left it 25 years ago, a little dusty (the look of it distinctly earth-toned, utility costumes suggesting a kind of biblical hip), but perfectly preserved. Edwards is not a director to get in the way, but my goodness she's on the case, her keen eye and great sense of symmetry and stage ritual demanding your focus. Mary is the first person to take the stage and the last to leave it. As she sings "Could we start again, please?", her answer is cruelly played out in a silent mime showing Jesus mocked and brutalised by Roman soldiers. Bitter irony. Edwards is big on it. The tawdry spectacle of Judas's suicide is literally bound up with Christ's humiliation, the same rope Judas uses to hang himself hauling the battered Christ from the same black hole centre stage. While the idea that Judas speaks for sceptics everywhere turns the title song from a hollow production number into a disturbing vision of Judas berating Jesus on the road to Calvary.

Zubin Varla plays Judas with the raw, neurotic, tortured vocal cast (great role, but almost unsingable) of a rock star going cold turkey. He's dangerous and pitiful. His grotesque deconstruction of "I Don't Know How to Love Him", the single cleverest idea in the score, is poleaxing. The more so as you recall how sweetly Joanna Ampil's touching Mary Magdalene first attended it. And recall plays its part in the excellent Pilate of David Burt, whose haunting entrance number "I Dreamed I Met a Galilean" (cue the dulcet tones of acoustic guitar) so effectively sets up his dilemma later in the show. Caiaphas (Peter Gallagher in a wicked parody of basso profundo) and the high priests descend like birds of prey in this production and Herod's burlesque (Nick Holder and an assortment of asexual acolytes) is for once not merely a camp sideshow.

But out from the midst of this energetic ensemble comes the reluctant superstar himself. And Steve Balsamo really sizes up to him. It's a terrific voice with an unreal extension into searing falsetto. When his moment of truth comes with the show's pivotal number "Gethsemane" (the melodic shape of the very best Lloyd Webber to come) and he's caught in the scrutinising cross-beams of David Hersey's stunning lighting hollering "see how I die", the falsetto turns to primal scream. But it's a good death we see, a humbling death, as truthful as we could ever hope for from a show called Jesus Christ Superstar. Second coming, maybe. But it feels like the first. A blast. From the past. Only better.

Booking: 0171-656 1803