Jesus Christ Superstar, Honest Review

“In ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ an Old Story for (Yet Another) New Millennium”
New York Times

“NBC’s live ‘Superstar’ rose up from its own chaos and found salvation in the end”
Washington Post

“For fans eager to see this blast from the past resurrected with freshness, passion and contemporary attitude, Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert delivered.”
Hollywood Reporter

“‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Brings Strong Voices To A Familiar Story”
NPR


There was a lot of hype surrounding this production… a LOT of hype. So how could anyone not want to watch it? As someone who’s always had an interest in religious history, mysticism, doctrine, and systems of belief, and having written two books about it, I have to admit that this caught my eye…

Well… full disclosure, the Alice Cooper credit helped there as well.

I saw the original film production and, while I liked it, I didn’t think that it was really anything special. The songs were enjoyable enough, but I didn’t really see it as anything break through that stood out from other musicals of the time period. So I watched it, I enjoyed it, and I quickly forgot about it.

Years later, I revisited the play and I have to admit that the second time around was better than the first. One or two songs made it onto my playlist as well. Even so, I maintained my original opinion. It was good but offered little that made it stand out against other musicals. Other than it’s somewhat controversial portrayal of Jesus and Judas, there really wasn’t anything that distinguished it.

So, with all the hype, and having been to an Alice Cooper Concert recently… my wife decided to flick it on the other night. We open to a scene that looks like something from an ancient church… being renovated. Okay, okay, right off the bat, I know that this is a stage production, a high budget stage production, but still. We’re not going to get authentic sets like what we saw in the movies, I get that. However… I would have liked maybe a little bit more?

I mean the sets I’ve seen in past musicals that I’ve gone to see have very minimalist sets, but they utilize what little they have and really effectively manipulate the lighting and shadows to make you feel like you’re standing right in the middle of the scene they’re trying to portray. In this case… I didn’t get that. Half the time, I didn’t know if I was inside, outside, or where in Jerusalem we were supposed to be.  So again, this may be a bit of a nitpick, but I don’t think the sets effectively used what they had.

The same can be said for the costumes. Now before anyone get’s after me, yes the costumes for this play have ALWAYS been historically wonky and a weird fusion of modern clothing, but at least the key players had something… resembling period clothing. The Sanhedrin looked like Sith Lords out of Star Wars, and Judas looked like a biker. The tattoos and modern hairstyles also made it hard to tell who I was dealing with if it wasn’t a main cast member. Again, minor nitpick, but it detracted from the experience.

The songs were the same as before, but the performers… yeah I have to admit gave them new life. There was an energy to many of these songs that hadn’t been there before. I was actually thoroughly surprised to see Norm Lewis playing Caiaphas. The moment I saw him, my opinion of the play increased considerably. He is, without a doubt, one of the strongest male singers on the planet right now and I have been a fan of his since he came to the Boston 4th of July Pops celebration some years ago and performed “I Can Go The Distance.”

This was a pleasant surprise for me. For the most part, the songs were well performed and certainly had me tapping my foot the entire time. So I’ll give them full stars for how they did with fairly run-of-the-mill musical numbers. They certainly gave them new life and energy, it wasn’t perfect (and we’ll get to why later), but it was certainly an improvement.

So let’s talk about the casting…
I was pretty much giving Norm Lewis a standing ovation. As I said above, I’m a huge fan of his and he did not disappoint in this role either. Perhaps one of the surprise standouts was Jin Ha, playing Annas. I say standout because he really stole what parts of the show he was in, and that’s pretty big for a relatively unknown actor.

Another Standout was Sara Bareilles, again not someone I’ve heard of before. She absolutely delivered my favorite iteration of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.”

Her singing here was heartfelt and dead on. I thought she nailed it.

Brandon Victor Dixon played Judas. I have to admit, I’m not familiar with him and, given his filmography, it’s not a mystery as to why. That said, I really enjoyed his performance. He was as good, if not better than the venerable Carl Anderson. He easily kept everyone’s attention and brought a lot of energy to the show. It really does look like he’s having fun with the role as he performs.

Alice Cooper as Herod. There really is nothing to say here. If you’ve seen the original production, just hearing that credit should be enough to make you smile and want to see this. If for nothing else, his scene alone should make you want to see this production. He didn’t disappoint… The moment he got on stage and began singing, my wife commented that I was ‘grinning like an idiot the entire time.’ I’ll just leave it at that.

The last cast member I want to touch on is John Legend… I’ve heard opinions going back and forth on this one and… really I feel like he got the role because of his star power. That’s not to say he didn’t do a good job portraying Jesus, I think he did as well as he could with the material given. That being said, in other productions, the role of Jesus was played by people with a more gutteral, rock voice. John Legend’s background is more in R&B and his voice is a lot smoother than what we’d typically expect.

This isn’t his fault, mind you, the problem is that these songs were written for someone with more of a rock voice to sing. So he did a good job with what he could but, the incompatibility with the songs really showed here. He did as well as anyone could expect, but in the end, I really felt like his performance fell flat.

So at the end of the day, was this as big and game-changing as the critics have been making it out to be? Eh… no, not really. I’d give it a slightly better score than the previous productions because they did put a lot of energy into the songs that really made them stand out. The actors put their all into this, you can clearly see that… and of course Alice Cooper was a ton of fun, but for a revival to be successful, you really need to bring something new to the table… and while they tried to do that, most of the efforts really seemed to come up short. I’ll probably buy the soundtrack, because the positive energy in most of the songs was great, but all in all, I was hoping for a little bit more.

In summation, it was good, better than the original, but only marginally so. I was hoping for more. I still recommend seeing it, but don’t let all the hype up your expectations too much.

So readers, what do you think? Did any of you see it? Did you like it? Let me know what you thought of it down in the comments.



Readers,

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Catch you on the flip side!

-Jim

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