It’s Easter Monday – happy Easter, by the way – which means it’s time to go over NBC’s live broadcast of their version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar!
I’ve had opinions about this musical for two years longer than I’ve had opinions about Les Mis, so buckle up.
Norm Lewis as Caiaphas was perfect of course. The Annas was pretty good too. Backstory: the reason I ended up actually wanting to see this particular version of JCS was because of Norm Lewis as Caiaphas. Norm played Javert in the 25th Anniversary Concert for Les Mis, and also on Broadway; the guy is fantastic. So whatever else went on with JCS Live, I knew that the Caiaphas would be perfect. And I was right; and Annas and the other Pharisees were excellent too. “This Jesus Must Die” is the best number in the whole production.
Alice Cooper was … eh, he was alright as King Herod. Fumbled a line, didn’t have as much flair as I expected actually. I mean, come on. It’s Alice Cooper. I expected a bit more vocal diva. He wasn’t horrible, he wasn’t bad, he was just kinda alright. And that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing – not every cast member can be a powerhouse – but if the guy’s one of the three people you’re putting on the marquis to sell the show, you kind of expect him to be a powerhouse. Sorry, buddy. I like your cover of “This is Halloween,” though.
Sara Bareilles was great, as expected. She made a really wistful Mary Magdalene, balanced the sweetness and the belting very well, which of course is her calling card. And man, she delivered. The few trills and embellishments she made didn’t detract from her songs. They reminded us that, oh yes, this is Sara doing the singing. Nice. Solid performance, 10/10 good Mary Magdalene.
Erik Grönwall as Simon the Zealot was .. really good. Really, really good. Strong belt, lots of passion, hit a nice high note at the end, sustained his notes well. So … why wasn’t this guy cast as Judas instead? I’m just asking. This guy has potential. He was a strong member of the ensemble, but he could have been a real powerhouse if he’d been given the opportunity.
Jason Tam as Simon Peter was also a nice solid member of the ensemble, again, lots of passion. His final denial (in a song titled “Peter’s Denial”, who’d’a thought it) was a desperate frightened scream, and man, it worked. I wanna see more of these guys.
Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate was pretty decent. He’s no David Burt, but I’m pretty sure only Anthony Warlow would be able to match David Burt for sheer British snarly menace. Ben Daniels is also a tenor, as far as I can tell, and the Pilate role was definitely written for a baritone. But he put his all into it, and the result is a Pilate who genuinely wants to be good but ends up doing evil anyway.
John Legend was .. wait for it … legendary.
The actor for Jesus I’m most familiar with is Steve Balsamo of the original cast album. That dude had a pair of pipes – he hit the high notes as hard as possible, and held them longer than is normally possible for human lungs. He also didn’t embellish the notes at all, just sang them straight, no trills and no frills. John Legend hits it from the other direction – he keeps to the lower register for the most part, and does trills almost every line, and he holds his notes a reasonable amount of time. But here’s the thing, though: Trills and frills and dipsy doodles can be annoying if that’s all you do, and you don’t put any power behind your notes; but John Legend puts power into everything he does, so they weren’t annoying at all. His “Gethsemane” is a very different kettle of fish from Steve Balsamo’s, but it’s just as good, because they both put all of their passion into it.
Meanwhile, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas was … sweet.
Which is an extremely weird adjective to associate with Judas Iscariot, the ultimate traitor.
He went for the Zubin Varla riffs, the same ones from the original cast recording, which … I don’t know, it’s a bit odd considering how far John Legend deviated from Steve Balsamo’s performance in the original cast. This Judas is very pop-y, if that makes any sense. I mean, JCS is a rock opera, but he doesn’t belt the way you’d expect in a rock opera. In fact he doesn’t belt at all. For contrast just look at Drew Sarich as Judas in Amstetten 2005, who super leaned into the rock aspect and belted every line he could. – and actually, Brandon Victor Dixon doesn’t even lean into the rock aspect as much as Zubin Varla did either. On the one hand, the way he did “Damned for All Time/Blood Money” does a damn good job of making Judas reluctant to betray Jesus, and there’s a solid ten seconds’ silent hesitation before he actually does so. And for “Judas’ Death” he’s impressively torn up about it. But on the other hand …
… Where’s the anger? There’s no anger! And not even a hint of spite! You’re telling me that Judas Iscariot, ultimate traitor, isn’t even a little bit angry at the man he betrays?
The point of JCS is to portray both sides of the betrayal, and to explain that Judas had reasons for what he did. The lyrics do indicate a certain level of not only frustration but anger and vindictiveness that Judas feels towards Jesus. Brandon Victor Dixon is a decent vocalist, but the way that he delivered the lines didn’t exactly say “anger” to me. There’s despair and love and anguish in there, sure, but those are nuances that I look for to balance out the anger. It’s like putting all the garlic and onion and celery you could ever want into a chicken soup, but leaving out the dang chicken.
And this is exhibited the best in “The Last Supper.” John Legend is pouring all his passion into his lines, but with a sad-sweet-despairing Judas, what’s usually almost a fight scene is instead … really vocally unbalanced. “To think I admired you – well, now I despise you!” are words that should be hurled like arrows, like daggers, like a freaking fireball. Instead they’re almost whispered. “The Last Supper” is the opening number in Act Two, and it should start off with a punch! And with John Legend as Jesus, it does! But then Brandon Victor Dixon opens his mouth and … it kind of falls apart. I’m sorry, buddy, I really am. I’m sure you’d make a wonderful Peter. But I’d pick somebody else as Judas.
And honestly – if you’re gonna pick a guy from Hamilton to play Judas, why not pick Leslie Odom Jr? Or do you not think he’d work as well in the glittery shirts?
Or Erik Grönwall would look pretty good in the glittery shirts too. Just saying.