What’s the Buzz About NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert?
He is risen, indeed. NBC’s Easter Sunday concert broadcast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s biblical rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar marked the ascendance of a superstar — just not the one we watched angelically drift into the crucifix-shaped distance. To steal the spotlight from music superstar John Legend is no easy task — especially while the 10-time Grammy winner is portraying God incarnate on the anniversary of his resurrection. And yet, Brandon Victor Dixon — a Broadway mainstay but one of the lesser-known names among NBC’s celebrity-filled cast — stole the show with a tender Judas kiss.
Dixon’s command of the cavernous Marcy Avenue Armory space in Brooklyn is unparalleled from his first suspicious glance in "Heaven on Their Minds," to his postmortem rock fantasia performance in "Superstar," which featured belting so high, television screens across America will have to be glued back together. Granted, Judas is by far the most complex of Webber and lyricist Tim Rice’s character renderings, most of which have been starkly painted in either darkness or light. High priests Caiaphas and Annas, played malevolently by Norm Lewis and Jin Ha, don maniacal black robes as they plot Jesus’s demise, while Mary Magdalene, performed by pop-star-turned-Tony-nominated-composer Sara Bareilles, gets a cheery orange dress as she soothes her tortured Messiah with unflagging compassion and grace (Paul Tazewell designed the costumes with a striking fusion of modern and ancient).
Judas, however, gets to dabble in the shadows. He sends Jesus to the cross, but with a guilt that sends him to suicide (a death that directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski mercifully leave offscreen as part of their consistent display of restraint). Judas’s inner tug of war is that of a person who simultaneously chooses and is chosen to commit an act of betrayal, and Dixon delivers on all of the emotional gradients that come with that ambiguous combination.
Legend’s performance, on the other hand, seems to coast on ethereal autopilot until he finally sets his vocal and emotional range free in "Gethsemane." Vocally, he lives up to the promise of a John Legend-driven Jesus Christ Superstar, never missing a note and lending the saccharine score a soulful heartbeat with his personal interpretations of the melodies. It’s when he can’t musically participate that the effort to engage in the action becomes visible — usually in a contemplative squint that never quite carries the weight of a god.
Bareilles’s Mary doesn’t evolve much between "Everything’s Alright" and "Could We Start Again, Please?," but her voice slips effortlessly into both. Her version of "I Don’t Know How to Love Him" is a particular highlight — her signature vocal flourishes stamping the song as her own while also trading some of its melodrama for grounded emotion. Alice Cooper is also a crowd-pleaser in "Herod’s Song," milking his five seconds of spotlight like a veteran ballerina who greets her fans with a single plié and proudly saunters offstage.
Fortunately, none of the night’s acting snafus will be audible on the new recording, which, having originated in 1970 as a concept album, is how Jesus Christ Superstar is truly meant to be consumed. The audio experience promises to be nearly flawless, and yet, those who opt for the album over the broadcast will be missing out on some of the most impressive visual elements of any of the live musicals to date. In lieu of soundstages and rotating sets, production designer Jason Ardizzone-West has created a single elegant space that is at once sacred and punk-rock. Camille A. Brown’s ensemble choreography (like her choreography for the Broadway company of ‘’Once on This Island”) is also not to be missed. After all, Jesus is nothing without his followers, and Brown’s movement imbues this community of disciples with a shared earnestness that eventually turns against the prophet in chants of "Crucify him!"
And to think, just 90 minutes ago, these same folks were dancing on tables in Jesus-branded tank tops. It’s almost as if political winds could shift on a dime in biblical times — a concept too foreign for Americans of the 21st century to comprehend, but at least we could spend our lazy Easter Sundays grateful that those erratic days are in the past.