In the past five years the wave of TV musicals have ranged from “DEAR GOD WHY?” (The Sound Of Music Live, Dirty Dancing) to “That Was Adequate I Guess,” (Peter Pan Live, Hairspray Live) to “Quite Good With Moments Of Greatness” (A Christmas Story Live, Grease Live, The Wiz Live)
On that spectrum, Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert hits in the “Quite Good With Moments of Greatness” and from a personal standpoint it’s my favorite so far. Mostly because I like JCS more than I like Grease, so while I think from a critical and technical standpoint they were on par, I was going to enjoy this more.
Let’s start with the not as great stuff so that I can gush later:
- We need to stop casting pop stars who can’t act as major acting roles in these things. John Legend is a talented and charismatic dude, with a lovely and hilarious spouse, who was hopelessly outclassed by all of his scene partners. Not, by the way, that being outclassed by Brandon Victor Dixon, Norm Lewis and Ben Daniels is anything to be ashamed of, but they were so much better than he was that it was distracting. Also, I felt bad for him as he struggled through “Gethsemane,” kind of. That’s a really difficult song, but also, if you can’t take Andrew Lloyd Webber’s heat, get out of that particular musical theater kitchen, ya know? (Words I also wish someone had once said to Madonna)
- Alice Cooper’s performance as King Herod was kinda meh. I was thrilled to see him (and he’s a member of my favorite version, the 1996 studio cast, also with Peter Gallagher!) but the execution here left me underwhelmed.
- There were both tech issues and vocal blowouts galore. Which means that this was badly rehearsed. NO musical director worth their salt should let both their Pilate and Jesus push so hard that they struggle through Act 2. And no sound tech with adequate preparation should be dropping mic ques on a production at this level.
- OMG WE GET IT WITH THE SCAFFOLDING! I know, I know, this musical has a lot of electric guitar in it, so we need to have scaffolding in the set because Rent said so, but this has become such a lazy and cliche design choice, I’d rather not see it used again for a while. (You’ll notice about a year ago, I had this same complaint with The Lighting Theif)
Now onto The Stuff I Liked (A LOT)
- Brandon. Victor. Dixon. While to the uninitiated it might seem odd that Judas is better than Jesus, this is not even remotely unusual for this show. It’s the better, more dramatically important role. He gets three great songs to Jesus’s one. (“Heaven On Their Minds,” “Damned For All Time,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Granted, the one for Jesus is a doozy…but still) And Dixon is, you know, incredible. After seeing and loving him in Shuffle Along and being blown away by him in Hamilton I loved seeing him play this role, which he just ran away with. Seriously, I hope this serves as his mainstream coming out party because it was just so good.
- Sarah Barielles as Mary Magdalene. I’m protective of this role. It’s songs served as audition pieces for me throughout high school. Sarah did very well, and I loved the directing and costuming choice of making her a flower child in a sea of punks. It made her stand out among the followers and is a more organic fit for both Barielles’s energy and Mary’s songs.
- Pretty much all of the supporting roles were great, but I really loved what Ben Daniels did with Pilate. As Mary exclaimed, “HE LOOKS LIKE 80’s BOWIE! THAT’S PERFECT!”
- Pretty much all of the staging and costuming? Like, nothing was revolutionary, but it all worked. And the Crucifixion was a technical marvel. And I couldn’t help but giggle at the ensemble taking Wayne and Garth style “We’re not worthy” stances as Alice Cooper entered.
- The band and orchestra: Because Webber is a beautiful weirdo who doesn’t believe in genre lines JCS requires both a rock band and a traditional orchestra. Some production only pick one and they usually go with the band. We got both here! Yay! But also, the fact that this show requires three guitars players to do it justice is one of my favorite things about it.
- I want to specifically call out Jason Tam and Erik Gronwall who played Peter and Simon Zealotes because Simon sings my favorite song in the show, and Tam was so adorable that he made me give a crap about Peter which I never have before in this show.
- BRANDON VICTOR DIXON
I was overall really impressed. Have watched the thing twice. My greatest joy with it was that it didn’t feel neutered, which I was afraid it might. No, it was as weird and challenging and beautiful as ever. As Katie (who is not a fan of this show BTW) once said, “if nothing else, Jesus Chris Superstar has a point of view, and if that gets lost, well, there’s nothing there.” This production had a point of view.
Our next one is Fox attempting Rent next January.