Redeeming itself from an overblown first half and having its energy continually sapped by frequent commercial breaks, NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” was saved Sunday night by its emotional climax, as Brandon Victor Dixon (as Judas Iscariot) delivered an unforgettably raucous take on the show’s title number and John Legend (as Jesus) floated away on a cross into an impressively ethereal light display.
The beauty of that finale probably won’t stop religious hardheads from complaining — as they have for 47 years — that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” technically lacks a resurrection scene. (On Easter, no less!) Though I wouldn’t have put it past NBC to tack on a rolling-away-of-the-stone in these often cowardly times we live in, they wisely did not, because when “Jesus Christ Superstar” is done right, it stirs the audience in such a way that they themselves feel risen. It’s a sort of resurrection of the inner spirit.
Getting there was the difficult part. At some point, NBC retitled the project by taking away an exclamation point after “Live” and terming it “Live in Concert,” perhaps as a signal to viewers that this “Jesus Christ Superstar” would indeed be more of a rock concert, with a noisy audience of bouncing superfans cheering loudly for every entrance and high note.
God help the viewer who had never seen the show before and had to somehow discern from its initial chaos of camera angles, choreography, scaffolding and “Mad Max”-style punk apocalyptic costuming that we are in Jerusalem during the final days of Jesus’ life. Amid this mess, Dixon, as Judas, belted out a key song (“Heaven on Their Minds”) that lyrically offered the only hint of the show’s tone, point of view and central conflict. It was lost. What’s the buzz? Lifelong fans certainly knew, but we’ve had decades to play the album version to death.
After the first commercial break, we saw Caiaphas (Norm Lewis) and his high priests scheming to quell the Messiah mania by killing Jesus, but from the way they were dressed, they may as well have been trying to stave off the destruction of Krypton.
“Superstar” is tricky in a number of ways, from costumes to staging to intent — lean too far in one direction, and it can seem heretical. Lean too far another way, and it gives off the slightest whiff of the anti-Semitic. Lean another way, and it’s a flat-out depressing show, featuring a Jesus who only screams at his friends and followers, a Messiah who is overwhelmed by lepers and angry at God, with a Judas who is driven to betrayal and suicidal apoplexy over his friend’s obstinate path.
That’s probably why so many of us, Christian or not, remain intellectually fond of “Jesus Christ Superstar” — something about it seems determinedly relevant and human. Over the years, as it has been staged myriad times around the planet, “Superstar” has lost some of its necessary grittiness and hippie aesthetic, replaced by a snazzier, shinier and ultimately hackneyed displays (I recall seeing a stage rendition in the MTV ’80s that featured a wall of television screens and a Jesus with Bon Jovi’s hairdo). Simpler is always better, and so much of the show’s success hinges on who plays Jesus, and how.
Legend proved vocally up to the task — which is considerable, given that the entire show is sung. With his “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say),” he joined the ranks of past Jesuses who sang it so memorably before, including the great Ted Neeley, who starred in director Norman Jewison’s underappreciated 1973 film version.
What Legend demonstrated with vocal power, however, did not come packaged with the acting presence needed to convincingly get “Jesus Christ Superstar” off the ground. Luckily, the stage professionals surrounding Legend picked up nearly all the slack. Along with Dixon, Sara Bareilles brought a new sharpness to the role of Mary Magdalene, especially in her performance of “Superstar’s” popular ballad, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”; Ben Daniels was an equally compelling Pontius Pilate.
As for Alice Cooper, who as King Herod had one song (some fans think it’s the show’s best song, an attempt at comic relief that hams it up between Jesus’ arrest and Judas’s suicide), I guess the only question Cooper had to answer with his performance was “Why did they get Alice Cooper to do this?” The 70-year-old rock legend stuck to his seemingly ageless brand, clad in a David S. Pumpkins-like orange suit. As stunt-casting goes, it could have been worse.
Throughout, I kept wishing for a better balance of energy. “Superstar” came on way too strong at the outset and took nearly all of its 2-1/2 hours (including all those commercials) to find its holy groove. But when it did find it, it verged briefly on miraculous.