NBC resurrects ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ for rousing performance despite problematic aspects

Eric Liebowitz / NBC/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is, and always has been, kind of strange.

Originally a concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the musical eventually made it to the stage in the 1970s with varied success. The 1973 film included five cast members from the original 1971 Broadway run and consisted of psychedelic desert scenes and characters running from tanks. So, again, “Jesus Christ Superstar” has always been kind of strange. It’s only when productions embrace this utter eccentricity — as Sunday’s live NBC taping of it did — that the show is truly successful.

Stunning performances were bolstered by impressive lighting, costuming and choreography. The choreography conveyed an appropriate frenzy, given the play’s depiction of a movement that has grown, according to Judas, beyond Christ’s control. The number “Simon Zealotes” epitomizes this theme — the staging and choreography introduced the involuntary cult of personality, while Simon’s (Swedish rocker Erik Grönwall) singing made us believers.

An important note — the musical has a somewhat complicated past, potentially indicated by Sunday’s low ratings. Many Christian leaders consider it blasphemous, while Jewish leaders have pointed out its anti-Semitic undertones. The story of the crucifixion positions the Jewish people as the ones responsible for Christ’s death, a claim which is historically inaccurate and has long been used to persecute Jewish people.

NBC’s production dealt with these criticisms by not addressing them at all. Airing the show on Easter, coupled with the unorthodox choice to use overt resurrection imagery in the finale, positioned the central narrative as solely Christian. The show appeared utterly unaware of its ties to Judaism, even setting the infamous Temple scene on a giant, wooden cross laid flat on the stage.

Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate and Alice Cooper as King Herod not only provided notable supporting performances, their characters demonstrated the genius of the production’s costuming. While Pilate’s red leather gloves made the “blood on his hands” metaphor a note too literal, Daniels made it work, adding a certain flair to Pilate that is often reserved only for Herod.

Unsurprisingly, the standout performances were provided by the cast’s Broadway veterans. To say Norm Lewis has an impressive Broadway résumé would be an understatement. Though his role as Caiaphas was minor, Lewis brought a gravitas to the role through his nuanced acting. Lewis’ performance was subtle — a raised eyebrow here, a small gesture there — which was rounded out by his mastery of his character’s  vocal demands.

Virginia Sherwood / NBC / Courtesy

Virginia Sherwood / NBC / Courtesy

Brandon Victor Dixon stole the show as Judas. Judas, depending on perspective, could be considered the lead role, with the part requiring exceptionally challenging vocals. Dixon — who played Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” on Broadway from 2016 to 2017 and who delivered a condemning speech to Mike Pence when the vice president attended the show — met and surpassed the role’s demands. The two standout numbers of the show, “Judas’ Death” and “Superstar,” were wholly carried by Dixon’s emotionally compelling performance.

John Legend, as the titular superstar, gave a stirring performance. He effectively embodied the calm, peaceful side of his character, but he ultimately failed to deliver viewers. “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say),” Christ’s big performance, was ultimately adapted to suit Legend’s vocal range, which led to the loss of many of the number’s most iconic high-pitched notes. That being said, Legend worked within his limitations to make the role his own, putting a bluesy swing on the performance.

The talents of Dixon and Legend made this production one of the more memorable NBC live musicals — confirming that these live productions benefit from casting people who are familiar with the nuances of stage performances. Though the show continues to contain problematic elements, the combined efforts of the cast and crew — especially choreographer Camille A. Brown, costume supervisor Rory Powers and production designer Jason Ardizzone-West — captured the story’s compelling tale of the tragedy of love betrayed and love lost.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].