Tuesday, April 3, 2018

NBC's "Jesus Christ, Superstar" Live

I watched NBC’s annual foray into presenting live musicals on television, none of which have really been worth the trouble beginning with the loathsome, “hit ‘n mostly miss” “The Sound of Music.” Until Sunday night’s presentation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s groundbreaking rock opera, “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” (Along with "Evita" they really are the only two works of this composer I’ve ever grown to have any genuine love for). While NBC's production had some serious flaws, it's the best the network has done yet presenting a live musical.

The two worst parts were; (1) the bloody commercials every few minutes, but worse was; (2) the audience, who would never shut the hell up, screaming like banshees after every 2 or 3 chords. It was infuriating and nearly caused me to turn the entire thing off.

Mr. Legend's lack of acting ability was obvious from the get go, but he worked the music very well, even if it didn't always sit naturally in his voice. A couple of rough spots in the work’s greatest song/aria "Gethsemane" notwithstanding he pulled it off, for the most part with a voice that really does have some sweet spots.

Sarah Bareillis made the most demure, lady-like Mary Magdalene one could possibly imagine, and sang her songs very sweetly, interacted gently, but like Mr. Legend, relied mostly on her voice to put her performance over.

Brandon Victor Dixon (of "Hamilton" fame) impressed mightily as Judas, but sort of sounded like he was falling apart at the end – perhaps just in keeping with his character? Still, he rallied for the big title number and injected energy and some dance moves that shined as brightly as his final costume.

Ben Daniels’ Pilate owned the stage every time he stepped onto it. His attempt to save Jesus against the crowd demanding death was brilliant, wrenching theatre, with Loyd Weber’s writing for the chorus/crowd clearly drawing on the mob scenes from Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Bach’s “St. Matthew.” I can’t think of many musicals that compare right at that moment.

The bottom reaches of Caiaphas’ contributions were tough going for Broadway veteran Norm Lewis, struggling to growl almost inaudibly even being mic’d. It (almost) didn’t matter as his words at those points were in unison with Jin Ha’s Anna, and the midrange of the rest of Lewis’ role – where most of it sits – were voiced majestically and with the hint of the menace necessary, He and Ha’s countertenor-esque sound playing perfectly off each other.

70 year old shock rocker Alice Cooper’s star turn as Herod in his brief solo, worked both nostalgically and in context of the circus atmosphere taking place at this part of the show.

The physical set was minimal: acres of metal scaffolding, fountains of flames, chairs, plywood tables, sheets, curtains and scarves, filling the massive stage of the Marcy Armory while the rear stage walls featured a mixture of modern graffiti contrasting with fading religious frescoes as might be seen in an ancient Greek church. All of it was positively eye popping.

For the crucifixion those walls split into a cross behind Jesus whose crucified body raised ever higher, than floated backwards into blinding light offering the ultimate “deus ex machine!” The effect was haunting and of deep spiritual significance regardless of one’s beliefs – and for once, an enormous stage effect kept the over exuberant crowd properly hushed.

I watched the entire thing again on Hulu, where it had been, blessedly, removed all of the commercial interruptions. I truly believe the commercials were the central reason many had issues with the show Sunday night, or at least, why I did. Continuity and momentum had been destroyed by the commercials breaking the show up into “bits,” rather than a whole. Performers, by training and, hopefully, a bit of instinct, know how to keep the intensity of a character. We've all had to do just that when we're not in scenes but have to return to the stage later just as "alive" as when we'd left no matter how many minutes or hours it's been since our exit. BUT, the breaking up of scenes in something not written for television makes it hard, if not outright impossible to "stay in the moment.” This is, I believe, particularly true when the pauses are long, irritating, and are trying to sell us toothpaste, toilet paper or car insurance.

Re-watching it again as a solid 1 hr. and 40 minute show I took far less notice, and neither minded nor concentrated on the blemishes, despite my knowing where and when they were coming, if only owing to the fact there simply wasn't time to dwell on them. To that end, Mr. Legend's performance - and everyone else's moved me far more than did last night. This may be in part because I lowered my expectations, but I think more so because the pacing was as it should have been and not broken into 7-10 minute vignettes.

I was once again impressed by David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski’s marvelous production, this time able to observe more details than I could absorb on a first viewing. After decades of all the overblown, Puccini-stealing, spectacles ALW’s career has come to be defined by, it was bracing and beautiful to return to his roots, remembering how he shook things up nearly 50 years ago with this single, beautiful work.


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