It was one of the first and most unexpectedly successful pop-culture phenomena of the 1970s: a post-Woodstock, post- "Tommy" rock opera, released as a two-record set, putting to music the story of the last week in the life of Jesus Christ.

When "Jesus Christ Superstar" came out on vinyl in 1970, it was a high-concept project from a group of unknowns. The most famous singer on the album, at the time, was Ian Gillian in the title role, and his fame - as the new lead singer of Deep Purple - was relative at best.

Within a year, though, Yvonne Elliman's rendition of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," taken straight from the album and her portrayal of Mary Madgalene, was a Top 40 hit, and the album went gold. A grossly overstaged Broadway version soon followed, and a tacky 1973 film directed by Norman Jewison, and "Jesus Christ Superstar" went into hibernation.

(The careers of lyricist Tim Rice and especially composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, though, shot upward with a vengeance. You know the rest.)

In London, a recent revival of "Superstar" reimagined the drama in modern dress, but with the '70s musical sensibilities intact. It was a hit there and was imported to Broadway last year. The version shown tonight at 8 on the PBS series "Great Performances" (WNET/Ch. 13) is filmed using that staging, but without an audience, and with cameras roaming freely to capture closeups and actions in dramatic and cinematic fashion.

The result, for this record-turned-musical-turned-movie turned musical turned TV special, is the best version yet. Costumes and lighting, from flashlights used during "The Arrest" to leather-clad angels in "Superstar," are imaginative and dramatically reasonable. Stage director Gale Edwards co-directed the filming with Nick Morris, and there's a central, respectful artistic vision that makes this "Superstar" a super adaptation.

The performers, too, enhance the impact. The story's central trio - Glenn Carter as Jesus, Renee Castle as Mary Magdalene and Jerome Pradon as Judas Iscariot - all provide intense and impressive acting and vocal turns (Castle especially). Rik Mayall gets one strongly staged novelty number as King Herod, and Fred Johanson as Pontius Pilate lends very strong vocal support in a pivotal role.

Thirty-one years after the release of the original album, "Jesus Christ Superstar" arrives courtesy of a new medium - and rises again.

  by David Biancully
New York Daily News