Jesus Christ Superstar Live!
Oh Lord, who is going to clean up all that glitter? In one of the many Twitter-worthy flourishes in NBC’s snazzy, telegenically gritty production of Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, Jesus bursts into the temple and finds the decadent Jerusalemites writhing on a large cross-shaped table covered in glitter, their bodies flashing and twinkling under the garish pink light. “Get up, get out!” bellows Jesus (John Legend), as the sparkly sinners scatter, doomed to be washing glitter out of their body crevices and mesh tank tops for all eternity.
Cheeky touches such as that added to the energetic staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 rock opera, which tells — or rather, belts — the story of the last week of Jesus Christ’s life, leading up to his crucifixion. Filmed at the cavernous Marcy Armory in Brooklyn, New York, NBC’s Superstar cultivated a look that was somewhere between an arena rock show and the Zion Dance Party from Matrix Reloaded: The large stage was mostly unadorned, save for two concrete walls bearing faded religious graffiti, and a multi-level steel scaffolding from which characters and musicians would emerge (and sometimes skulk) to dramatic effect. Into the ensemble of disciples — a tattooed, hipster collective done up in various shades of black leather — entered Legend’s Jesus, wearing all white and a long gray duster that can best be described as the love child of a grandpa cardigan and a well-worn bathrobe. The look of Superstar (designed by Jason Ardizzone-West) seemed devised to put the focus primarily on the performers and, of course, the bombastic pleasures of Webber’s kitschy, catchy music.
Though NBC made a few casting missteps with some of its earlier live musicals (The Sound of Music Live, Peter Pan), with Superstar — which requires its cast not so much to act as to sing — the network wisely surrounded Legend with some spectacular theater vets, most notably Tony nominee Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas Iscariot, and Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate. As Superstar’s other tragic figure — the conflicted, angry Judas — Dixon carries much of the story’s emotional weight, which he handles as deftly in his character’s quiet moments of torment (“Damned for All Time/Blood Money”) as he does in his dazzling, cathartic performance of the musical’s 11 o’clock number, “Superstar.” Tony nominee Daniels rises above his character’s unfortunate burgundy leather pants and imbues Pilate with dignity and desperation, while Sara Bareilles — who launched her own Broadway career in 2016 with the musical Waitress, which she wrote — gave the performance of the night with her intensely emotional but beautifully controlled rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
What about Jesus, you say? While Legend struggled a bit with the acting part of the gig — his non-singing expressions wavered between furrowed-brow intensity and composed serenity — the singer was a compelling vessel for Superstar’s power ballads, and his rich baritone showed remarkable stamina during the two-hour-and-20-minute production. And for an extra dose of charisma, we needed to look no further than Alice Cooper, who delivered a delicious dollop of camp as King Herod. Striding down the steps in a gaudy orange suit, twirling a skull-headed cane, and trailed by Vegas-style showgirls, Cooper literally stopped the show to soak up the crowd’s adulation after his delightfully sneery performance of “King Herod’s Song.” For all the singers who took us to church with this production of Superstar, Cooper was the one who had the most fun playing God.