This Easter, Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber masterpiece that is often overlooked on account of its off-putting title and historically controversial religious subject matter, took to the stage—and screen—for a “Live in Concert” performance on NBC.
This rendition of the 1970 rock opera, which follows the story of Jesus’s final days, from his entrance into Jerusalem to his death on the cross, was indeed performed like a live concert—clapping, screaming audience, and all. The performers, who included John Legend in the role of Jesus, certainly fed off the energy from the crowd that gazed upon, cheered for, and reached out to touch Legend as if he really were Christ himself.
The screaming audience, which occasionally drowned out the music and lyrics, also hurt the production in some ways, however, as the show’s concert-like feel at times took some of the intimate emotion out of the actors’ performances of the passion-driven plot.
Vocally, Legend was able to wow the audience throughout a large portion of the show—his voice has a soothing, Jesus-like quality to it—but as the show progressed, it became clear that the singer-songwriter just simply did not have the vocal range for the role.
For those familiar with the Superstar soundtrack, it was quite anticlimactic when many of the powerful high notes Jesus is supposed to belt just simply never arrived—either because Legend couldn’t sustain them or because they were taken out entirely to adjust for the singer’s range. With Legend’s relatively weak rendition of Jesus praying in the garden in “Gethsemane,” and other instances in the show where he proved himself to be only an average actor, it was easy to wonder whether he was in the role merely because his big name might attract more viewers.
Sara Bareilles, on the other hand, gave an excellent performance, showcasing her unique, angelic vocals in the role of Mary Magdalene. While her performance started out with a decent rendition of “Everything’s Alright,” it really found its footing with the classic “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and culminated with a sweet intermingling of her and Peter’s (Jason Tam) voices in “Could We Start Again Please?”
Despite the title, however, the real focus of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t actually Jesus, but his betrayer Judas Iscariot—from whose point of view the story is told—played in this production by Brandon Victor Dixon, fresh off a run as Aaron Burr in Hamilton on Broadway. While at times Dixon seemed to lack the raw emotion—distress, jealousy, anger, and feelings of inner conflict—that is essential to pulling off the role of Judas (although to be fair, any Judas has huge shoes to fill after Carl Anderson’s portrayal on Broadway and in the 1973 film version), overall he carried the show with incredibly powerful vocals and an emotional performance that grew stronger as the concert continued.
Talent was prevalent throughout the rest of the show’s cast as well—among them Broadway star Norm Lewis, whose acting and strong baritone voice made for an excellent high priest Caiaphas. Alice Cooper also made a thoroughly entertaining appearance as King Herod: Through his amused facial expressions and playful interactions with the crowd—waving them on to cheer for him and embracing their applause as he shouted “Hello Jerusalem! I am your king!”—it was clear that he was having fun with his part, which he ended with a casual mic drop, and as a result, the audience had fun with it too.
For the song “Superstar,” arguably the highlight of the production, Dixon’s Judas returned from the grave and made up for whatever he may have lacked in the beginning of the show with a vibrant, emotion-packed rendition of the show’s title track—all while dressed in a sparkling silver ensemble, surrounded by a fiercely energetic cast of dancers.
Immediately following was the scene of Jesus’s crucifixion, which was portrayed in an impressively beautiful manner: Legend, tied to a metal cross, was lifted up to the sky as the massive backdrop opened up to form a larger cross, with a lone spotlight shining through from behind. The cross was carried back into the light, which grew stronger and stronger as the music faded, until the viewers at home saw nothing but the bright white glow—truly a moving, visually stunning scene to close the production.
In short, Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert had some areas in which it did well and others where it lacked—but if nothing else, it gave those who are already fans of the show the rare opportunity to see it live (as, due to its aforementioned nature, it has trouble touring) and hopefully exposed a whole new group of people to the hauntingly powerful way Webber’s melodies and Tim Rice’s lyrics serve to tell this familiar tale.
Featured Image by NBC