What would Jesus do?
The Jesus of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” I mean. That shaggy hippie creation of 1971, were he to reappear a half-century later, in the wake of “Rent” and “American Idol,” social distancing, and rising authoritarianism.
He’d leave you feeling reborn, if just for one evening, that’s what. The time is ripe for the 50th-anniversary revival tour of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic, sung-through rock-opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” now being presented by Broadway in Boston through Jan. 16 at the Emerson Colonial Theatre.
Though it took a while for the touring cast to find their way on Thursday night, they rose to the occasion. COVID cases had resulted in substitutions in a couple of key roles. But by the time Pontius Pilate — played by Liverpudlian Tommy Sherlock as a kind of punk-rock autocrat — purposefully dropped the mic as he dismissed the Messiah figure, the swagger was real.
The music is precisely the same as you remember it, a mashup of heavy metal cliches, funky workouts, vintage cop-show chase-scene interludes, and that glorious orchestral flourish. An electric rock band and a crackerjack horn section busied themselves high on the second level of a minimalist set, a steel structure backed by a couple of olive trees.
In the middle of the stage lay a boxy runway in the shape of a toppled cross. Jesus (Aaron LaVigne) wandered around while his disciples, clad in hipster layers of sweat pants and hooded peasant sweaters, busted some moves to express their loyalty, jock-jam style.
The action picked up considerably upon the arrival of the high priest Caiaphas and his men, who strode down the runway bare-chested, in jackboots. As Caiaphas, Alvin Crawford’s basso profondo instilled the proper foreboding: “For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.”
LaVigne found his purpose on the blood-curdling scream he let loose in the temple. The actor, who also counts himself a singer-songwriter, ably matched the shattering shriek of Ian Gillan, the Deep Purple frontman who sang the Jesus role on the original “Superstar” album.
Chelsea Williams, understudying as Mary Magdalene, delivered a sweet “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the ballad that became a pop hit by Yvonne Elliman. As Judas, Pepe Nufrio shone during the “blood money” sequence, in which he reluctantly agreed to lead Caiaphas to Jesus. That’s been an interpretive point of contention since the original production.
Especially effective were the cast’s various props. The High Priest and his men brandished scepters that doubled as microphone stands. The ensemble fanned their Messiah with metallic olive branches. At one point they hid in the shadows, holding eerie glowing crosses.
Strumming a guitar at center stage to the impassioned showcase “Gethsemane,” LaVigne grappled visibly with Jesus’s impending death. He made the anguish real. In the spotlight, spittle sprayed.
Comic relief came in the form of King Herod (Paul Louis Lessard), who sashayed in to sing his showy ragtime number in a ridiculously enormous metallic gold gown, with false eyelashes big enough to see from the back row.
But the show relies on faith and sorrow, not slapstick.
“What is truth?” Pilate asks during Christ’s trial, yanking us rudely back into reality. “We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?”
This Jesus is gravely bloodied and battered. The ensemble mob administers the 39 lashes with handfuls of glitter. Finally, he’s raised on the crucifix, as the mob cackles and the band weeps.
We’re still waiting for his return.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
Presented by Broadway in Boston. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Timothy Sheader. Choreography by Drew McOnie. At the Emerson Colonial Theatre, through Jan. 16. Tickets start at $44.75. BroadwayInBoston.com, 888-616-0272
E-mail James Sullivan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.