There were times during Sunday night’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” when the crowd of Jesus’s supporters were like one single character on the stage. In hipster-looking styles, glitter, and tattoos, they moved in loose synchronicity, an exuberant and, later in the show, predatory mob. As the choreography brought the racially inclusive group to all corners of the show’s single set, a spare industrial-looking space with visible scaffolding, they were like a troupe out of a Madonna or Lady Gaga concert, dancing and singing among the band members and the stars.
It was one of the many well-done, energetic things about the production, which once again reminded me of how well “Jesus Christ Superstar,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, has aged since the album first appeared in 1970. The dancing crowd, reminiscent of “Rent,” too, brought out the increasingly relevant theme of crowd mania, which at one point, saw them taking cellphone paparazzi pictures of Jesus getting beaten. The idea of Jesus as a pop superstar, always present in the Rice and Webber’s story, was brought to the fore quite effectively.
That crowd was vibrant, and so was the audience at the Marcy Armory in Brooklyn, who cheered and clapped like a pop audience, not holding back when the stars — John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, and Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas — first appeared onstage. The NBC Easter special was as much like a concert — thus the title — as it was a theater event, and the outcome was exhilarating. The mob, the Marcy audience, the stars, us — we all had to deal with the intrusions of far too many commercial breaks, threatening to bring down all the get-up-and-go, and yet the pacing never flagged.
The show is about the last days of Jesus, but Judas and his complicated feelings are a key element in the story. Dixon, who has played Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” was a highlight, as his frustration and torment grew across the night. Wisely, he kept his affect down, aware, perhaps, that the cameras require a somewhat less theatrical performance than a live audience. His version of “Superstar,” delivered while dressed in a sparkly outfit, was exactly the show-stopper it was meant to be.
In his leather vest, Dixon was consistently commanding, something Legend struggled with a bit. Oh, Legend was fine, and at times touching, as his voice rose sweetly to the high notes on “Poor Jerusalem.” He made the glamorous side of Jesus — the superstar side — clear. But he lacked the stage presence and charisma you expect from a character who has brought the world to its knees. His voice, too, was perhaps too fine an instrument for some of the rock operatic yelling in the entirely sung-through show. When he pushed too hard, when Jesus’s rage erupts, he seemed more like a crooner than a full-throated singer.
Also disappointing: Alice Cooper, who was a dull King Herod. He arrived on stage in a shiny orange suit and sang “King Herod’s Song” almost dutifully. He brought little of the biting irony and vaudevillian mockery that the song calls for and that we expected from the man who sang “I’m Eighteen” and “Billion Dollar Babies.” The other baddies, notably Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate and Norm Lewis and Jin Ha as the Roman high priests Caiaphas and Annas, were far more compelling, their voices strong and melodic. Bareilles was excellent as Mary Magdalene, bringing warmth, commitment, and distinction to her songs. As with Legend, though, I kept wondering if she’d have gone deeper into the role if the show weren’t a one-off.
But despite the quibbles, which included some spotty sound mixing, “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” was a pleasure throughout. The show both respected the original score while adding a present-day spin and a sense of controlled chaos that kept it all fresh.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.