If this was the concert version, what on earth will they add to a fully-staged version? Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert was the latest in the string of musicals being broadcast live on television with starry casts. But the “concert” we saw on NBC last night had about as many sets, costumes, effects, actors, dancers, and musicians as Brooklyn’s cavernous Marcy Armory could hold.
The admired stage director David Leveaux (I saw and loved his 2003 revival of Nine starring Antonio Banderas and Chita Rivera) brought ideas, energy, and insight to the broadcast of the 1970 rock opera (music by Andrew Lloyd Weber, lyrics by Tim Rice). The results were, to my taste, mixed, although this production will be a lot of fun for anyone who likes the show, admires the stars, or just enjoys Broadway musicals and the chance to see them for free (or cheaply) and at home.
I’m not sure what the aim was in, or what was gained by, calling this a concert version, given that the staging was so fully realized, up to and including a coup-de-theatre for the (spoiler alert) exit of the crucified Christ, which was as impressive as what you’ll see in many a highly-priced, long-running Broadway show.
Whatever the goal, the concert conceit gave some of the numbers and performances a self-consciousness that undercut the effectiveness of Leveaux’ staging, and undercut the story-telling, as too often a singer seemed to be interacting more with the audience than with the other characters in the play.
Contributing to this dynamic was the hyper-engaged live audience, which seemed to have been encouraged to over-react as if watching a game-show. If the intent was to simulate the enthusiasm of a popular music event, the result felt inorganic and pushed. Most songs, some lines mid-song, and nearly every entrance was greeted as if Prince were back from the dead. (Seriously, who knew there were so many rabid Ben Daniels fans in Brooklyn?)
Unerringly, though, whenever I would give up on a particular actor or number, all of the sudden, (s)he or it would find a groove and, suddenly, it all seemed to work.
Jesus Christ Superstar, as those in my generation will well remember, began life not in the theatre, but as a concept album, which is how I first encountered and best remember it. That version has a distinct rock vibe. The cast was a mix of actors like Murray Head (the lead in one of my favorite films, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, and, later, he who sang “One Night in Bangkok”) with singers like Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, and the vocals are unmistakably of the time. Though released in 1970, it feels late-60s in tone.
Last night’s vocals felt more of this century, and under the pernicious influence of the American Idol style of runs and trills that call attention to vocal capacity more than to intention, character, emotion, or (often) text; songs frequently received Idol-like showy finishes. That said, the voices in this cast were uniformly strong, and much of the acting matched the quality of the vocal work.
It was the performances of the three leads that I found most unsatisfying.
Neither John Legend as Jesus nor Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas seemed to present us with the agitators suggested by their lyrics. The on-going debate between them was never brought by either very forcefully to the other.
Legend didn’t, at first, access the internal conflicts the character possesses, and he didn’t supply a transition between his overly-serene Jesus of the first half (I swear, at one point during “Hosanna,” I thought to myself, “It’s like I’m watching Perry Como”) and the tormented Jesus of the second. But midway through “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” — which is his big, introspective showpiece song — his work attained power and he found the passion the performance had, up until then, lacked.
It seems that I’m in a minority in that I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about Dixon (the Twitter-verse was going crazy over him), but, again, if I found much of his performance to be frustratingly presentational and self-focused, there were moments — such as the decision to betray — which were unforgettable.
Come to think of it, all of the strongest moments for all of the three leads were solo moments; the weakest were the scenes that required interaction.
Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene wasn’t impressive at all in the role until her “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” solo, which (a few big gestures notwithstanding) was terrific. It seemed like watching a different performer, there was such a contrast to her earlier scenes.
(I will here confess that my husband felt as if the “concert” context set the predicate for the style to which I objected and to which he responded much more positively.)
And if director Leveaux is responsible for some striking directorial choices (such as the sudden, striking quiet as Judas chooses to betray Jesus) and for the generally impressive mise-en-scène, he’s also responsible for some of the limp acting from his leads, and for the instances of limp staging, such as when Jesus picks up a chair, ostensibly to threaten and disperse a crowd, but actually with an energy as if rearranging his dining room.
Thank Jesus’ Father for the supporting cast. The (massive) ensemble was committed and then some; there was always something and someone interesting to watch whenever the main focus felt weak.
The scenes with Jesus’ antagonists were highlights, beginning with the conniving of Caiaphas, Annas, and their posse. The great Norm Lewis as Caiaphas was given notes that tested the bottom of his range, but he introduced intentions and stakes into the evening for the first time. (They also let him jump an octave occasionally; in fact, playing with octaves, which the cast would do here and there, was a musical device I found to be effective and refreshing.) The Annas of Jin Ha, who thankfully returns repeatedly throughout the show, was pitch-perfect, acting-wise as well as singing-wise.
I fantasized that director Leveaux must have told Erik Grönwall, who, as Simon Zealotes, duets with Legend on “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem”: “Do it as if you’re Tina Turner!” He did, and, um, it was something.
Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate grabbed the brass ring, as far as I was concerned. It’s not a subtle, understated performance — in fact, it’s over the top, but in an entirely enjoyable way, and the work was thoroughly informed by Pilate’s dilemma. And then, like everyone in this cast, about halfway through his big number, something clicked and it went into a higher gear. The second half of “Trial Before Pilate” was just perfection. (A younger Daniels would have brought the tormented conflict that I felt the more subdued Dixon lacked as Judas.)
It was left to Alice Cooper to take the show into camp overdrive. With his entrance, any pretense of theatre vs concert was dismissed, at least temporarily. It was like the finale show of an American Idol season when some rock star comes out to sing with some contestant.
But, again, about halfway into the song: click, all of sudden, my resistance was futile, and I thought, “Well, it’s working.”
Alex Rudzinski directed the television cameras. I felt as if his somewhat frenetic style worked against our being able to fully appreciate Leveaux’ staging.
I DVR’d it and, thus, was able to fast forward and only watch the concert. I saw much grousing on social media about the number of ads. (My brother tweeted: “Once he casts the money-lenders from the temple, will we not have all these shitting commercials?”)
Overall, I definitely felt that this was a very mixed bag indeed.
And I wouldn’t have missed it.
In case you missed it, NBC is making their live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar available here (starting off with a 30 second commercial intro)