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Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert: A Moving and Defining Project for TV

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber said, “’Jesus Christ Superstar’ has always been at its best when it’s presented live and close to a rock concert.”

He got his wish Easter Sunday night with NBC’s colossal and moving production of his and Tim Rice’s rock opera. It was a defining project for TV, magnificently directed by five-time Tony nominee David Leveaux (the “Nine” revival, among the five).
Producers Marc Platt and Craig Zadan-Neil Meron Productions provided a huge canvas on which to mount the passion of Christ: a mammoth, block-long/wide Brooklyn armory amazingly converted into an arena with sets hung from floor-to-ceiling scaffolding, and seating for a wildly enthusiastic audience of hundreds.
It’s impossible to beat live theater, but this production came close. Every great story is helped by excellent casting. Ten-time Grammy, Oscar, Tony and Golden Globe winner John Legend delivered a haunting portrayal of Jesus; Brandon Victor Dixon as apostle Judas stunned not only with his crackling vocals but also bigger-than-life stage presence; and Sara Bareilles – known to audiences of “Waitress,” the musical she composed and has starred in – surely became a household name last night with her mesmerizing portrayal of the smitten Mary Magdalene.
Lloyd Webber’s score ranged from power ballads to rousing, bombastic rock. Often the orchestrations and amplification affected the vocals in the huge production numbers. The composers’ classic ballads “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Could We Start Again Please” were well-served by Bareilles. Dixon has so many memorable moments it was hard to keep count, but “Heaven on Their Minds,” which opens the piece, and his sensational “Superstar” at the end, were showstoppers. Legend’s rendition of “Gethsemane/I Only Want to Say” was so harrowing and explosive that is surely will be long-remembered (in the arena, unseen on TV, the audience rose en masse in an extended standing ovation).
Ben Daniel’s portrayal of Pontius Pilate and his dilemma of what to do with Jesus as he tries to avoid crucifixion was bold and brilliant. Rock legend Alice Cooper, always playing to the audience, tamped down the camp of “King Herod’s Song” – a bit – but still managed a showstopper that received thunderous audience response.
An almost-unrecognizable Norm Lewis, displaying what must be the world’s deepest bass, was featured as the high priest Caiaphas; Jason Tam (“If/Then,” “Lysistrata Jones”) appeared as the apostle Peter; and Jin Ha (“M. Butterfly” revival) was the high priest Annas.
Musicians, under the baton of Nigel Wright, were scattered on the stage floor and various levels of the scaffolding. The off-stage chorus provided several poignant moments.
Production designer Jason Ardizzone-West, lighting designer Al Gurdon and telecast director Alex Rudzinksi deserve kudos for their excellent contributions. Rice, Webber and Legend were among the executive producers.
There were hand-held cameras, often with the cameramen enveloped in the action, overhead cameras and a camera mounted on a gigantic crane which showed the vastness of the set and also provided knockout close-ups. The crew deserves a round of applause for their fast work during four and five-minute commercial breaks – they certainly had a challenge sweeping up those buckets of glitter.
A costly production as this must be paid for, so there was no way around commercials. How grand it would have been to have one quite generous sponsor, but in the absence of that some special thought should have gone into the placement of commercials as has often been done with prestige TV programming. Platt and Lloyd Webber helped pay for the production with commercials for “Wicked,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “School of Rock.”
Let’s hope this production of “Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert” doesn’t go away. Maybe NBC will make it an Easter perennial. There is a just-released cast album. Surely, there’ll be a DVD. The production is so staggering that it should be showcased in HD in theatres worldwide.

Ellis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline. He can be reached at ENassour@aol.com
For questions or comments, email hottytoddynews@gmail.com

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