TV Review: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert’ on NBC

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

NBC’s Easter Sunday production of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” was, as the young people say, doing the most.

This musical threw together glitter, sequins, leather, writhing hotties, a few big performances pitched to the last row, and camerawork that often felt as though it was hopped up on too many lattes. Actually, the ragged edges of a unifying concept did emerge over the course of the NBC musical’s two-hour-and-20-minute running time: If its philosophy could be summed up in one word, “excess” would just about cover it.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But this live show was a lot.

The musical was intensely earnest, often endearingly so. The entire cast, a multi-cultural tribe who looked as though they just left a loft party at 3 a.m. hungry for more adventure, was as energetically sincere as they could be almost all of the time. The exception was Alice Cooper, who stole the show when he emerged in an orange suit. But that adjective doesn’t begin to describe what he was wearing. Cooper’s threads looked like there were made out of flames — that’s how vivid and pleasingly eye-popping his tailored suit was — and yet the singer easily outshone his clothes. His rendition of “King Herod’s Song” was a star turn of the highest order, and a delightful amount of fun. If you can’t enjoy a dapper, devilish rock-god Herod surrounded by dancing ladies clad in outfits a Vegas showgirl would kill for, then perhaps live musicals on television are just not for you. (Your loss.)

The musical played out on one big stage, which at different moments became the haunts of the ruling classes, the Garden of Gethsamene, or the hangouts of Jesus and his disciples. But despite the energy of the youthful ensemble — or perhaps due to the chorus’ occasionally punishing eagerness — a lot of the best moments of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live” were solo turns.

When the center stage was occupied by former “Hamilton” cast member Brandon Victor Dixon, “Jesus Christ Superstar Live” was generally mesmerizing. Dixon gave heft, complexity and a majestic fatality to his Judas, who is perhaps the most coherent and even sympathetic character in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1970 rock opera.

Dixon’s voice was piercing and urgent as he contemplated betraying Jesus, and the actor’s work was stunning just before Judas committed suicide, a gut-churning act that was staged cleverly and effectively. (Judas ascended a ladder, and when the ladder fell, it was clear that he had taken his life.)

But spiritual doubts and moral struggles were often overshadowed by bursts of exuberance, even in a few places in which a more measured approach might have been called for. That said, it was hard to resist Dixon’s masterful charisma when Judas returned a short time after his suicide. Rather improbably, he was accompanied by three backup singers who were made up to look like Diana Ross and the Supremes. What did a ‘60s girl-group vibe have to do with the final hours of Jesus of Nazareth? Well, what were showgirls in fishnets, evil rulers in long, geometrical hooded capes and a Pontius Pilate in leather pants doing in this show? Who really knows? 

Ben Daniels had a lot of fun strutting around the stage as an imperious, tightly wound Pontius Pilate; his performance was big, theatrical and enjoyably precise, and his wardrobe was to die for. Sara Bareilles was as pure a presence as one could hope for in the role of Mary Magdalene. She didn’t try to upstage or outdo anyone else in the musical, which was a relief. Her quiet, lyrical voice was an oasis of serenity, even if the energy of the production and the golden quality of her vocals couldn’t quite distract the viewer from the fact that the role of Mary is underwritten and a little bland.

Like “Hamilton,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” is sung through, meaning there were no breaks for dialogue, which tends to come across as stilted in these newly popular TV stagings. Members of the troupe constantly crossed the stage, climbed the scaffolding surrounding the stage, and even graffiti-ed the walls. The production, which was staged at the Marcy Armory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was aided greatly by a set of well-rehearsed musicians, whose efforts occasionally overshadowed the singers.

The careening nature of the writing by Rice and Lloyd Webber, amplified by the desire to leave no opportunity for bombast unexplored, led to some jarring shifts. When Judas returned from the dead in silver, spangled clothes and led the entire ensemble in a big dance number, it was odd but somehow also cathartically fun. The problem was that celebratory mood contrasted wildly with moments before and after in which Jesus (John Legend) suffered greatly. There were genuinely poignant moments in the show, many of them involving the betrayal, capture and agony of Jesus. Legend was suitably vacant and terrified as the Savior was led around in cuffs and then, in a harrowing sequence, lashed by the people around him.

But what a mixed bag “Jesus Christ Superstar” was as it built to its climax. There was Judas leading a group dance number that looked like a Zumba routine in a Williamsburg coffeehouse — and then a bleeding Jesus was crucified and died. The production’s most visually stunning moment depicted Jesus being lifted into an airy space shaped like a cross; that aperture, lit by a heavenly light, then slowly closed, as the worshipful fell to their knees. It was a genuinely moving tableau, not quite — but almost — overshadowed by the earlier dance-party antics.

Legend himself may not be what viewers will be talking about on Monday morning. Other characters and outfits are more likely to be gif-ed and meme-ed (his Jesus took the stage looking like he’d gotten a deal on a tasteful ensemble from Eileen Fisher’s 100 percent organic Galilee collection). But the singer-producer came through when he needed to. Legend had the range to bring soulful pain and sweet clarity to his biggest musical moments, which reinforced the square sincerity at the core of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which celebrates finding something to believe in, even if what one grabs at may be an illusion.

Legend and his white tank top held together this wild, eclectic, hipster-ish collection of impulses toward communion, love and light, and it was hard not to be swept up in the disciples’ collective faith. There’s a hymn in most churches that features the refrain, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

After being diverted by a whirling mass of glitter, leather, tattoos, disco moments, rock-star preening and heart-rending betrayal, yes, for a moment, I was there. And that was something.