The Internet went pretty wild for Jesus Christ Superstar Live. Full confession: Until last night, I’d never seen it, nor listened to it the whole way through, but what I knew of the score has never been my favorite. So it was a tough sell for me to begin with, but apparently I had an especially contrarian April Fool’s Day, because I didn’t love it on the whole. I felt like it dragged until about 90 minutes in, at which point the whole story picks up, as you can imagine. There were great individual elements: The bad guys were super, although there were several moments I wished Alice Cooper had taken it more over the top during his performance; the beginning and end of the song were strong, but once he actually sang, the fun seemed to happen around him. Ben Daniels’ Pontius Pilate was lively and vaguely campy in a way that made me wish he’d played Herod. Sara Bareilles was lovely and gentle as Mary Magdalene, though that part sadly amounts to very little. The shot of female energy was so welcome every time she brought it, that you start to realize just how infrequent that is — though that’s hardly this production’s fault, and let’s acknowledge that a big part of the problem is also due to the commercial breaks interrupting the flow, a problem of economics that no one has quite figured out how to solve. And the crucifixion scene at the end was a real knockout visual, if also a jarring mood swing from the disco dance party of the climactic song, “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
I think that’s where John Legend got swallowed. The shift was bigger than he is, and his performance wasn’t quite there to bring us back. In fact, the energy as a whole often ate him alive. Obviously the guy can sing, and I think artists like he and Sara Bareilles can transition nicely to theatre because, essentially, they already play characters; they pour so much emotional and physical energy into their vocal performances. But the crucifixion speech severely did not land for me, I thought he overdid the wincing several other times — this is a REALLY REALLY difficult role, so it’s rough sledding as someone’s first shot at major theatre — and Legend’s head voice is not quite my jam so some of his vocal moments missed too (I was not blown away by “Gethsemane” and thought he seemed out of gas by the end). Mostly, I didn’t find him as charismatic as I would have expected of the Jesus character. Tell me: Is that intentional? I’m asking honestly. Someone who’s more familiar with the production in general would have that perspective — like, maybe the whole idea is that he’s NOT larger than life, “he’s a man, he’s just a man,” underscored when Herod is belittling him as not so special. I certainly get that Judas is concerned that he’s being overblown, but since so much of the crux of the plot is about Jesus’s followers being whipped into a frenzy and the threat against the Romans that this poses, I thought I’d see a little more magnetism. Brandon Victor Dixon was such an emotional standout as Judas, and so compulsive to watch, that I kept wondering if he would’ve been a spectacular Jesus. Would that casting have worked in reverse, I wonder? I mean, tell me Chrissy Teigen didn’t want to steal BVD’s glittery silver Judas outfit at the end for later saucy use.
Still, overall: It’s a win for theatre. This should finally prove to NBC that it can stage a musical LIKE a musical, with a live audience, rather than the claustrophobic and energy-free productions it’s done in the past. The beauty of live theatre is letting the actors feed off the audience; it informs their energy so very much, and it’s what was woefully missing from The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and The Wiz. (Fox at least demonstrated that by having an audience on its three Grease Live sets, though that still played like an episode of Saved By The Bell in parts.) The scope of this production ought to inform future ones. Rent is up next, and there are so many hungry fans of that show who would LOVE for it to be brought to life this way, with heat and imagination and an excited crowd.