Monday, April 2, 2018

TV Review: Jesus Christ Superstar Live

NBC's special live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar was a welcome change of pace from the recent slate of live Broadway network specials.  Instead of a full on-stage production with traditional sets designed to simulate the Broadway experience, JCS was a more of a stripped-down concert with minimalist, utilitarian sets and contemporary costumes, complete with each cast member being miked, but still interacting as they would in a stage play.  The backing band was also visible the whole time, often taking center stage during instrumental passages.

Musically the show was top-notch and a very worthy rendition of the classic rock opera.  The band was tight, and faithful to the original but still found room to add their own touches here and there, particularly during various guitar solos.  The strong foundation was there for the actors to build their performances.

But this show would stand or fall based on casting, and fortunately this cast was first-rate, from John Legend's soulful, strangely non-rock n' roll turn as Jesus (Legend's silky vocal style worked unexpectedly well in this context despite the band's stylistic adherence to the classic rock original) to Sara Bareilles's understated, melancholy performance as Mary Magdalene, to theater veteran Norm Lewis as the imposing, authoritative Caiaphas (Lewis has commanding stage presence and brings just the right sense of menace to the show's de facto villain), to Ben Daniels' effortlessly charismatic Pontius Pilate, to Alice Cooper's flashy, memorable cameo as King Herod, channeling his Billion Dollar Babies-era swagger. 

Probably the most important role in Jesus Christ Superstar though is Judas.  Judas is the glue that holds the story together, the catalyst for the events that play out, and in an odd way the character most relatable to the fallible, fragile audience.  If the actor playing Judas isn't up to the task, the whole show falls apart.  Brandon Victor Dixon was more than up to the task, delivering a muscular performance that prodigiously brought to life this conflicted, crucial role.  While his opening number felt perhaps a bit uncertain, Dixon settled into the character almost immediately after that, stealing the show in the second act, as Judas should.  Dixon has fittingly also played Aaron Burr in Hamilton, a role that for me echoes Judas and his relationship with the lead character.  Dixon admirably filled the enormous shoes of the great Carl Anderson, for me the absolute definitive Judas.

From top to bottom JCS Live was a visually and musically engaging spectacle; a mix of classic rock mixed with current pop and theater sensibilities, boasting a tremendously effective ensemble cast with two pretty stellar lead performances.  The commercial breaks were a tad distracting; frequent interruptions of a live performance just feels wrong.  But aside from that complaint this two-plus-hour show flew by and did Andrew Lloyd Webber's masterpiece true justice.  Easy thumbs up from me.

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