NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” was supposed to be the hit of the century due to singers John Legend, Sara Bareilles and rocker Alice Cooper. But instead, the big names were upstaged by co-stars and the bold production design of the classic Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Any shortcomings by the top three couldn’t sink this enduring musical, though. Buoyed by that striking production with its industrial, modern urban vibe and a star-making performance by Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, “Jesus Christ Superstar” provided plenty of thrills for musical-theater fans.
Legend, an Oscar and multiple Grammy winner, headlined as Jesus. He has an impressive range and a lovely falsetto. But this is a rock musical, and he failed to deliver some of the most famous rocking notes in Jesus’ signature song, “Gethsemane.” His acting, too, seemed to lose intensity as Jesus grew closer to his death. While being an incredibly talented singer — not to discount that in the slightest — Legend just doesn’t measure up on the acting side of Jesus, he doesn’t completely capture what the character of Jesus really needs.
While personally being one of Sara Bareilles’ biggest fans, her renditions of Mary Magdalene’s pop ditties “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright” were incredible vocal wise, but her acting also came up short. Like the problem that plagued Legend, she doesn’t quite capture the fire inside of Mary Magdalene.
Alice Cooper, in what should be the campiest role in the show — King Herod — turned in a strangely static performance. He made the hilarious King Herod feel too much like a belabored role. (Maybe to compensate, Ben Daniels turned up the camp factor in Pilate, usually a much more somber role.)
But many of the supporting players shone. Central Florida native Norm Lewis displayed his imposing voice — and stage presence — in a delightfully malicious turn as Caiaphas, the high priest. As his sidekick, Jin Ha made a perfect match.
Swedish rocker Erik Gronwall — a winner of that country’s version of “American Idol” — made a strong impression when he stepped out of the ensemble for “Simon Zealotes.” The whole ensemble, which included Broadway leading man Justin Matthew Sargent, made a strong impression — in part thanks to Camille A. Brown’s energy-lifting choreography.
The theatrical effects were hit and miss — the Crucifixion and final scene worked much better than Judas’ suicide by hanging.
But Brandon Victor Dixon’s performance as Judas was a star-maker. He has been a theater-world name for years, as producer and Tony-nominated performer. Most recently, he played Aaron Burr in the smash hit “Hamilton.” But after Sunday night’s showing, he deserves to be a household name. Dixon put the anguish of Judas into every line, every movement. With his Broadway skills, he made the rock lyrics understandable and the emotion plain to see. And his singing was through the roof in quality and impact.