This was aired on NBC Easter Sunday, but better late than never for a review…
I personally go way back with “Jesus Christ Superstar”, beginning with the movie soundtrack double-album back in 1972 and Ted Neeley in the title role. I damn near wore my record needle down to the nub listening to it, what a great recording. I finally got to see the movie the following year, and wound up going back to watch it three times in total. Of course, I now have it on DVD.
I was also fortunate enough to see the play which included Neeley performed live twice at the Buell Theater in Denver, in 2008 (with my youngest son, Tony) and 2010 (with my wife, Grace). Neeley was aged 64 and 66 for those shows. To say we were totally blown away on both occasions would be the understatement of the century, and Tony had never even seen the movie or heard the music from it before.
So, I think that more than qualifies me to write a review of the brand new “Live in Concert” 2018 version. Admittedly I’m a bit biased, mainly because of Neeley, of who I am a huge fan. This review is in sort of a mixed format, with some of sections being a comparison of the two versions, and others just straight impressions of various items in the new version.
First, let’s have a look at the main roles…
Jesus – John Legend
While I’ve read other reviews online praising Legend, I just don’t see it at all. It’s in fact just the opposite. His acting is nothing notable, and his vocals are the weakest link of the entire affair. He sung every high note using falsetto, which severely weakened his overall performance. Neeley has such an incredibly a wide vocal range, there’s no comparison whatsoever.
The biggest disappointment for me was Legend’s performance of “Gethseneme”, probably the most dramatic and powerful scene in the entire play. He evoked no emotion in me whatsoever, which is the exact opposite of what this scene should accomplish. Some of the original lyrics were changed, which only added to what I feel was a middle-of-the-road performance of the scene, at best.
In Neeley’s performance of “Gethseneme”, he routinely hits a fully-blown “G” above high “C” (G5), seemingly effortlessly. For the layman, that’s about as high as it gets for a male vocalist. His acting is totally off-the-scale as well, mind-bogglingly amazing. When I saw his live performance of this scene, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Watching him perform it from about 20 feet away, the front of my t-shirt was soaked.
Ted Neeley (2006):
If you watch this entire thing, you’ll see he even has the rest of the cast in the stage wings in tears. It’s certainly not like they don’t see it almost every day, so that’s really saying something.
Simply incredible, incredible, INCREDIBLE vocals. I really can’t think of a word strong enough to describe them.
I’m aware they didn’t want to use famous actors or vocalists in this 2018 version, for who knows for what reason. Now, this may sound crazy, but my pick would have been Michael Sweet as Jesus. He’s about the only man on earth I can think of with pipes that even begin to approach Neeley’s.
Neeley is still touring with the JCSS play today (currently in Europe) to sold-out shows, at age 75. It’s a very sad thing that he was never even mentioned once during the entire 2018 TV program, which pales in comparison to the 1973 original. It’s no small wonder why, given Legend’s sub-par performance.
Judas – Brandon Dixon
Now, this dude gave an awesome performance throughout, both with his acting and vocals. The fact is, he stole the entire show.
My only criticism here is the way the scene which has Judas hanging himself was done, from a stage set perspective. Totally lame, but no fault of Dixon’s.
You’re probably familiar with Corey Glover, who is both an actor and was the lead vocalist in the band “Living Color”, who had a huge hit with “Cult of Personality” in 1988. When I saw the play in 2008, he played Judas, and what a stellar performance that was. In 2010, Judas was played by Josh Young, who had a good outing but nowhere close to Glover’s. Filling the boots of a great actor and vocalist combined must have been no small job for Young, so I really wasn’t expecting anything close.
Mary Magdalene – Sara Bareilles
While Bareilles put forth a good performance, it was nothing special. It would no doubt be unfair to compare her to Yvonne Elliman, and ridiculous as well since there’s no way that comparison can even be made. I’ve heard she stated that she wasn’t trying to compete with Elliman, and instead to leave her own mark on the character. Good thing too, since she’s not even in the same ballpark. Hell, she’s not even in the same ballgame.
Simon Zealotes – Erik Gronwall
While the character Simon participates in a lot of the play’s scenes, it’s a short active role on vocals. Nonetheless, Gronwall crushed it with his singing, and it was a really shining moment in the play.
High Priest Caiaphas – Norm Lewis
Lewis has an extremely low bass voice, which made him perfect for the role. If I closed my eyes, I don’t think I could distinguish him from Bob Bingham on the original movie soundtrack. Really, such a well-done job.
Pontius Pilate – Ben Daniels
Good acting, but horrible, off-key vocals in many spots. It was actually painful to listen to at times.
King Herod – Alice Cooper
Wow, who would have expected AC to show up in a play like this? He laid out surprisingly smooth vocals, and I’ve certainly never heard him sing like that before. He’s a total natural in the role for the flashy, Broadway-style King Herod scene.
Nothing else really worth mentioning as far as the other characters go.
– The highlight of the entire 2018 play was the Crucifixion scene, not because of Legend, but due to an extremely well done stage set. For me, it was the only awe-inspiring point of the whole show.
– As I mentioned with Legend’s performance, the original lyrics were changed in many other spots as well. I’d almost say that’s “blasphemous”, but I’m avoiding the pun!
– Way too many long commercial breaks, which totally broke the flow of the entire thing. If you watch it, I sincerely hope it’s from a DVR so all of that stuff can be skipped. My guess is that, on top of the money which was paid to NBC for those commercials, the producers are also hoping to get rich with a DVD version. You can bet your booties, you won’t see me buying it.
So, a fair review? If you’ve seen the 2018 show, please share your thoughts with me in the comments below.