MOSCOW — A theatre in southern Russia has stopped selling tickets to the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" after prosecutors launched a probe into whether it is offensive to devout Christians, officials said Saturday.
Saint Petersburg's Rock Opera company was to perform the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical -- a 1970s classic that has been regularly performed in Russia -- at the Philharmonic in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don on October 18.
However prosecutors launched a probe after a group of local residents complained that the musical presented a distorted image of Jesus Christ.
"A probe is under way, and subsequently the appropriate decision will be taken," a spokesperson for the Rostov prosecutors told the Interfax news agency.
NTV television said ticket sales had been stopped pending the outcome of the probe.
"We are shocked that someone has demanded that the musical be cancelled," an employee of the Philharmonic told the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily. "We will be told on Monday whether it is going ahead."
The employee said the show had already been performed in Rostov five times and had been sold out on the last occasion.
The complaint, sent by 18 local residents to the prosecutors and theatre, said that the "image of Christ presented in the opera is false from the point of view of Christianity", local media reported.
"As it stands, the work is a profanation," it added.
The controversy over the performance comes at a time of heightened tensions in Russia been religious believers and secular activists after the conviction of feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot for performing in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
"This show has been performed by our theatre for 20 years," one of Rock Opera's actresses Maria Klimova was quoted as saying by the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.
"People come to know this story -- generations. There is nothing insulting in this work. It is his (Lloyd Webber's) version of the story. This is all some kind of misunderstanding," she said.
A Church spokesman meanwhile emphasised that the Russian Orthodox Church had nothing to do with the request to ban the musical and even appeared to express admiration for the work.
"The so-called Orthodox activists are expressing only their own opinion which is not shared by the Church," Igor Petrovsky, spokesman for the Church in the Rostov region said, quoted by Komsomolskaya Pravda.
He said many priests and believers had been grateful to hear the musical in the 1980s when it was first performed in the atheist Soviet Union and "hear something nice and beautiful about Christ."
With music composed by Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, "Jesus Christ Superstar" has been a major hit since its first performance in the early 1970s. It tells the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus in the style of a rock opera.
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