By LAUREN CLOSS
Over the last few years, several popular stage musicals have been adapted into live television shows. From “The Sound of Music” to “Hairspray” to “Grease,” these specials featured popular actors or artists like Carrie Underwood, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Julianne Hough and Vanessa Hudgens, appealing to audiences that are not typically fans of stage productions. “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert!” the latest live TV musical, aired on Easter Sunday this year and starred John Legend, Brandon Victor Dixon, Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” tells the story of the last week of Jesus’ life from the perspective of Judas. A rock opera written in 1970, the musical is typically set in a mixture of biblical times and the modern day. This setting was continued in the live television special with the cast members giving off rock concert vibes in tank tops and leather vests, with modern hair and tattoos exposed. John Legend as Jesus wore a tank top with jeans, sneakers and a cardigan all in light colors. This modernization also brought in an interesting class element with Pilate and King Herod in more colorful and fancy outfits as opposed to the darker street clothes donned by the apostles and the Jews.
While many people watched the live show to see John Legend, Brandon Victor Dixon stole the show as Judas. Giving both an incredible vocal and acting performance, Dixon hits notes perfectly on pitch, but also in a stressed way that conveys the complex emotions required for the role.
While John Legend’s classic voice worked beautifully for slower songs like “Hosanna” and “Gethsemane,” his attempts to mimic the typical “screaming Jesus” portrayal by Jeff Fenholt and Ted Neeley did not come across well. His huffing, puffing anger portrayed in “The Temple” was not convincing and the way he builds up in songs like Fenholt or Neeley and then cracks into a falsetto instead is disappointing and jarring. It seems as if he focused so much on musicality that he sometimes misses the emotional aspect. In “The Last Supper” his voice has perfect vibrato during the confrontation with Judas, but he doesn’t match the emotion Dixon brings to the table.
I personally would have loved to see him embrace his portrayal of Jesus as somber and tired. “Gethsemane” was beautifully haunting and sad, and Legend could have stuck with this rendition rather than attempting the irritable confrontations.
Another role that was done very well were the Pharisees, who were vocally on-point, but also with calculating attitudes and geometric, cult-like sci-fi villain outfits made them much more threatening and menacing than the comical versions typically portrayed. Their intimidating interactions with Judas helps give more insight into his choices and emotions, which is the point of the show.
Overall, “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert!” is a worthy addition to the recent series of live television musicals and a fun and thought-provoking form of Easter-themed entertainment.