John Legend, Sara Bareilles, "Hamilton" veteran Brandon Victor Dixon and Alice Cooper lead the NBC special on Easter Sunday, performing the 1971 rock opera of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
The key to the casting Jesus Christ Superstar the audacious musical count of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice of the last week in the life of the carpenter's son of Nazareth, is accepting that, unlike the title, it is the bandit in conflict of the piece. Jesus is a figure too loaded with symbolic weight to allow many dramatic nuances beyond the intensity of introspection. And next to him, Mary Magdalene is a heartless maid. But Judas Iscariot, the open apostle who sees too clearly the dangerous threat that Jesus represents for the Roman Empire and tries to warn him (taking measures that would make his name synonymous with betrayal) is the dynamic force that shapes this version of the centuries, old narrative.
So congratulate the producers for making the right decisions in the breakdown of experienced artists and theater actors with dramatic skills to support their vocal talents. While the soft charisma of John Legend and the mellow pipes made him a moving Jesus, and the touching manner of Sara Bareilles with a song proved to be excellent for Mary, enlisting Brandon Victor Dixon – last seen on Broadway as Aaron Burr in Hamilton – was the crucial piece of casting.
But here's the thing: This was a phenomenally balanced production of Jesus Christ Superstar in which the power of the stars was matched by the depth of the feelings and the characterization in all the main ones. And the immediacy of television, with the first capable of approaching the faces of the actors, gave Jesus and Mary Magdalene a complexity that is often lacking in conventional productions.
A slight departure from the formula established in recent years to live television music events, Superstar was less a traditional theatrical production under study than a fully assembled concert as the title suggests, performed in the cavernous Marcy Avenue Armory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Pulsing with kinetic energy from the overture, the show was an exciting hybrid of Broadway and the arena show, taking the material to its roots, and you could feel the excitement in the live audience, even at home.
NBC gave the show a breathless promotional boost, bombarding viewers with breakthroughs and clips that underlined modernity and the possibility of relating to this Messiah as a man. A special 70-year tribute was also issued to Andrew Lloyd Webber, basically a one-hour infomercial for Sunday's broadcast that Glenn Close and Lin-Manuel Miranda threw down flattering softball questions in an interview that seems to need no help massaging theirs . ego.
But aside from the absence of humility from Lord Luvvy Lloyd Webber, the sung show has stood the test of time remarkably well. Launched as a conceptual album in 1970, it expanded to Broadway the following year and has practically been playing on tours or revivals at least somewhere on the planet since then. The film version of Norman Jewison of 1973 framed the material as a countercultural theater company that arrived by bus in a Middle Eastern desert to perform the musical Passion Play. And, although much of his time, the film remains a guilty pleasure, even though Ted Neeley's Jesus is as wooden as the cross on which he is nailed. In any case, I would prefer to take that before the pornographic version of torture of Mel Gibson, The Passion of Christ .
It hurts me to admit that I'm old enough to remember when the musical was more groovy than kitsch, but that gives me an innate affection for this melodious relic of rock, with its howling guitars, funky synths, male falsetas squeaks and pop ballads melodic, even their occasionally cheesy lyrics. The most recent revival of Broadway, in 2012, was a commercial disappointment in spite of Josh Young's electrifying Judas, but it turned out to be decisive that the show is more lasting than the other biblical rock music of the same era, Godspell ] that now seems irremediably hippy-dippy and twee. The apostles doing jazz hands just feel bad.
As was customary since the resurgence of the live TV musical, the duties of directing in Superstar were divided between an experienced stage professional (in this case the British veteran David Leveaux) and a director of live television (Alex Rudzinski, whose work with Thomas Kail in Grease Live! 2016 so far remains the gold standard of the recent crop). Strengthened by the lively choreography of Camille A. Brown, the use of the directors of the vast space was exemplary.
The show had an exciting start, with a fully female string quartet taking to the stage to establish that the musicians would move freely among the inclusive racial ensemble, equipped as punk-out hipsters. A flaming cauldron ignited, in the style of the Olympic Games, when the guitars entered and an artist painted with spray the name "Jesus" on the main wall of a stage wrapped in scaffolding. By the time the walls separated so that the Legend Jesus made his divine entrance, the audience was already on fire, especially when the star began to touch the sea with outstretched hands of the mosh pit.
Dress to kill by the seamstress Paul Tazewell ( Hamilton ), with a vest and black leather pants that removed the skin, the polished Dixon set the bar high with a hard disk "Heaven on Their Minds. " And Bareilles maintained the standard with a beautiful "Everything's Alright", with a saffron robe and sandals. Here, and later on "I do not know how to love him" and "Could we start again, please?" own expressive stamp in the phrasing of songs that fans of musical theater know by heart.
Also among the first highlights, Swedish rocker Erik Gronwall tore "Simón Zealotes" with transport, well, zeal, while the high priests of Caiaphas and Annas, Norm Lewis and Jin Ha sounded as impeccable as they were in its futuristic layers of Matrix style. The design work was first class, and the fluidity of the multi-camera images gave the whole show a vitality that is rare in a performance filmed on stage.
The great test for Legend was "Gethsemane", and although he does not have the authentic rocky voice for which that defiant soliloquy was conceived, he sang with tremendous power and painful sweetness in the high notes. There is a beautiful, Serenity like Buddha to the characteristics of the star that made him fit for the character, but the additional advantage was the gravity he brought to the great moments of Christ, when the end becomes clear.
Like Pontius Pilate, Ben Daniels seemed resplendent in gold and burgundy, more than compensating for any vocal limitation with dramatic authority, even later in the show as his singing became more irregular during the test scenes. And the whip of Jesus, not by a single centurion, but by a large part of the whole, taking turns in a sequence choreographed by Brown with a fierce vigor, was shattered.
If the presentation of a tortured Judas hanging did not quite generate the emotional impact required on the screen at home, Dixon seized the stage as if literally reborn with his powerful interpretation of "Superstar", aided by a trio of dancers of singing-vocalists crackles. And the "Crucifixion", staged with a brilliant stage shot and celestial lighting effects, was a coup de grace in the air. Truly transcendent.
In his careful planning and execution, this was a class effort in everything, with only a small disappointment in the casting. Looking for an iconic face instead of a clever musical theater actor to play King Herod, the production settled for Alice Cooper, almost immobile, who was more of a mocking geriatric rocker than a mocking vaudevillian. Although the choristers with golden plumage were hilarious, even they could not get the number of wheezing from the floor.
But hey, that's just prying into what would otherwise be an outstanding presentation. This is a demanding score to sing, and if there was any dependence on the backing tracks it was not obvious to this viewer; The choral work behind the potential clients was exceptional. Lloyd Webber demonstrated sagacious judgment in robust orchestrations that spanned the division between the origins of the period of music and a more current sound. If the show managed to take over the young demographic that NBC was aiming for, it will not be clear until the audience numbers are in the future. But for fans eager to see this burst of the resurrected past with freshness, passion and contemporary attitude, Jesus Christ Superstar live in concert delivered.
Place: Marcy Avenue Armory, Brooklyn
Production Companies: Universal Television, The Really Useful Group, Marc Platt Productions, Zadan / Meron Productions
Cast: John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Brandon Victor Dixon, Alice Cooper, Ben Daniels, Norma Lewis, Jason Tam, Jin Ha, Erik Gronwall
Directors: David Leveaux, Alex Rudzinski
Executive Producers: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, Marc Platt, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, John Legend, Mike Jackson, Ty Stiklorius, Alex Rudzinski
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Choreographer: Camille A. Brown