“Could We Start Again, Please?” NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Live in Concert

Jesus_Christ_Superstar_LiveI wouldn’t exactly call myself an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan. I like his musicals more than I might care to admit. There is something intoxicating about an indulgently baroque score that is riddled with random hair metal guitar licks and disco drum beats. I loved an album he did eons ago with his brother Julian Lloyd Webber called Variations in which he basically “dance remixed” Paganini into submission. I suspect that’s where my fascination with musical reinvention began. Oh, I saw the film Evita about a dozen times in 1996 at the peak of my Madonna obsession, and I dearly loved it, although it doesn’t hold up as I’d hoped in light of more celebratory, effusive, less self-conscious film musicals that would follow.

I’m even less sprung on “He is Risen” #SoBlessed Easter spectacle and pageantry. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and, at some point, Easter took on an almost insufferably sanctimonious quality among the social media posts I would read and observe from friends and family members. Not sure how and when that happened, but, as for me, I’m more of a “Here comes Peter Cottontail” #CadburyEgg kind of Easter person.

So I approached with YUGE trepidation NBC’s latest live musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Live in Concert starring pop/rock stars John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Alice Cooper alongside theatrical luminaries like Hamilton’s Brandon Victor Dixon and Porgy and Bess’ Norm Lewis.

I was wrong. It was pretty fabulous with a dystopian post-punk quality that was more George Orwell than Mel Gibson and a color-blind casting approach that was more Sesame Street than Sean Hannity. Producers Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, and Marc Platt generally know their way around a musical (NBC’s Peter Pannotwithstanding). With this production, they seemed to be less interested in staging a family friendly holiday confection (remember that creepy Wal-Mart clan from The Sound of Music Live’s commercials? shudder) than in presenting allegorical commentary on the fragmented state of our world today.

Norm Lewis

Lewis

It is a testament to directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski that they allowed the music and the performances to drive the spectacle, avoiding the overdone trap of previous live musicals with their veritable nesting doll of detailed sets that segue seamlessly one to the next. No, with Jesus Christ Superstar, settings were evoked through language and sound and cleverly used props and set pieces, surrounded by graffiti strewn walls and scaffolding used for exits and entrances and the occasional flogging and/or hanging (fun times!).

Maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention in vacation Bible school, but I wasn’t always sure what the heck was going on during Jesus Christ Superstar. The ubiquitous commercial breaks after every big number derailed narrative momentum. The sound quality overall and the challenges of actor articulation/projection while performing in a vast, echoing Brooklyn warehouse contributed as well. The visibly live audience was a smart if distracting choice, adding to the cult-like adoration of the titular figure but often drowning out important lyrical bits.

Jesus Christ Superstar arguably also had the most uniformly excellent cast we’ve seen yet in one of these live productions. Nary a scenery-chewing Christopher Walken nor balsa-wooden Allison Williams in the bunch. The theatre vets faired best, with Dixon and Lewis leading the charge. Lewis as Caiaphas was suitably haunted and haunting as the Jewish high priest who organizes the plot to rid this rabble rouser from their midst. The show was grounded beautifully by his easy-to-take-for-granted performance.

brandon-victor-dixon-jesus-christ-superstar

Dixon

In the showier role as Judas, Dixon left it all on the field (sometimes to the detriment of diction), offering a portrayal rife with conflict and fear: love for a friend versus uncertainty that Jesus’ chosen path made any damn sense at all, layered with just enough resentment and jealousy to make it utterly believable. His final number, performing the show’s title song, was a barnstormer, replete with costuming that made Dixon look like a glittering disco ball.

Alice Cooper preened and strutted appropriately as King Herod whose one song (literally “King Herod’s Song”) is basically a toxic vaudevillian turn, leeringly challenging Jesus to provide evidence of any miraculous abilities at all. Cooper didn’t have to do much other than just be Cooper whose decrepit looks overlaid with his signature stage makeup and hair made for a compellingly repulsive portrayal. With Herod’s song and the subsequent “Trial before Pilate” (British stage vet Ben Daniels made for a kinky, mustache-twirling prefect … still not sure what I thought of him but I couldn’t look away), the die is cast for Jesus and the institutional conspiracy to cut short Christ’s anarchic message of love and inclusion and acceptance entered its final stage.

That was the aspect of this production that spoke to me the most, perhaps because of this ugly current milieu in which we live. Take, for instance, those brave, big-hearted Parkland kids who are pilloried by the falsely fair-and-balanced prophets of “freedom” every time they speak their truth. This production did SUCH an effective job demonizing the forces working against Jesus, did SUCH an effective job depicting the ugly mobs calling for his crucifixion, did SUCH an effective job revealing the insidious intersection of greed and power-mongering that it sent chills down my spine. I was less interested in the show as reflection of faith as I was in its revelatory “more things change, the more they stay the same” positioning.

I kept wondering how Fox News, who cozies up to such a feverishly Evangelical base, would find a way to deride this production which carries in its heart a pretty arch critique of the very demagoguery that is Fox’s stock-in-trade these days. I’m still waiting. Maybe they’ll just counter with a live production of Grease 2.

John Legend was a bit of a cipher as Jesus, which accidently (or intentionally?) aided this direction. His voice all Nat King Cole creamy smooth was an interesting juxtaposition to the jagged rock orchestration surrounding it, but his acting range just doesn’t exist. He can’t help but exude kindness, but otherwise his facial expressions seemed limited to surprised, placid, and worried … with barely any distinction between those. It didn’t much matter. The machinery of Webber’s music, coupled with the sharp overall POV of the production, formed an unstoppable steamroller with Legend along for the ride. When Legend as Jesus finally disappears into the great beyond (with a floating cross effect that was gobsmacking in a “how did they do that?!” way), we are left with the uncertainty of living in a world that punishes kindness and rewards cruelty.

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I am no theologian by any stretch, but I read some online comments where people unfamiliar with the musical wondered why it didn’t continue on through the “resurrection.” I think the fact that it does not address that part of the tale imbues Jesus Christ Superstar with a greater universalism.

We leave the piece with as much doubt as we entered. We are given no easy answers. Is Judas’ agnosticism valid? Why do we live in such a world where compassion is rewarded with utter rejection and abject fear? Why is love seen as weakness? Why are the biggest pronouncers of their faith often the worst hypocrites?

That is my idea of a “passion” play. Sounds like something Washington, D.C. should watch. On repeat.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

The Oscars … A Final Word on 2017

 

US-OSCARS-SHOW

All: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

The #Oscars … a final word. I always enjoy the show. A family tradition, we watched every year. We enjoyed the spectacle. We appreciated the good and the great amidst the marketing and the gamesmanship. We embraced the sense of community and the half-baked overtures at social consciousness. We lived for those odd and memorable moments that set one year apart from another. And we relished that we live in a country where this kind of goofy escapist display is celebrated.

 

89th Annual Academy Awards - Show

All in all, I liked last night’s show. And I’m grateful for the arts on all levels – from shameless commerce to high-falutin’ … glad it is ALL there for our consumption.

Other than that delightfully bizarre ending (La La Land wins … oops, sorry … give those back. Moonlight wins!), I thought this year’s Oscar telecast was a good-hearted and balanced production, and, while I am not a fan of Jimmy Kimmel, I thought he did a decent job of poking fun at the right personalities without being too invasive/obtrusive. And the whole enterprise moved as efficiently as it ever does, with a high point being the musical numbers … for once.

Here are some parting shots, culled from my social media observations of the evening …

  • Emma Stone,Ryan Gosling,Mahershala AliEmma Stone! And now she has an #Oscar … so we get a little break from the relentless charm offensive? Pretty please?
  • I know we are supposed to love Matt and Ben, but they seem like marginally interesting guys with whom I may have gone to high school.
  • Dammit. “Both Sides Now”?!? That song makes me a puddle. Perfect choice.#SaraBareilles #JoniMitchell #InMemoriam
  • “Dedicated to all the kids who sing in the rain. And all the moms who let them.” – “City of Stars” Best Song acceptance
  • Oh my! John Legend singing “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” … beautiful and elegant throwback to another era. A little Sammy Davis, a little Johnny Mathis, a little Nat King Cole. A lot of gorgeous.
  • Javier Bardem + Meryl Streep = swoon!gettyimages-645743660
  • “To save one life is to save all of humanity.” – White Helmets Oscars acceptance
  • Miracle of miracles. Seth Rogen actually made me laugh. #schuylersistersbucketlist
  • Audible – 1984, Zachary Quinto – commercial. For the win. #Orwell
  • This tour bus thing is a pretty funny bit. And Nicole, Ryan, Denzel, Jennifer, Meryl, Jeff, etc are playing along beautifully. #Gary
  • Yes. Zootopia! Most cleverly subversive film of the year. (And here comes the Moana debate again…)
  • Great ad, Cadillac. Though, it would have been better as Chevrolet. #CadillacNotTheEverymanCar … Cadillac … cars for fancy people … no, wait, for the common man … no, wait. Fancy people. Yeah. Fancy people.
  • Shirley MacLaine, still looking adorable, and still milking the reincarnation jokes…
  • US-OSCARS-SHOW“People and words and life and forgiveness. And grace.” – Viola Davis
  • “I love Lady Gaga’s grandma’s house.” – Ellen (I am not sure what the ad was for, but that line made me LOL.)
  • For the first time … in, like, ever … the music on the #Oscars is (mostly) on point. But I’d like Lin-Manuel to stop rapping. For a long time.
  • “We don’t discriminate based on country of origin here in Hollywood. We discriminate based on age and weight.” – Jimmy Kimmel
  • Words I thought I’d never type. Suicide Squad, Oscar winner.
  • John Travolta should send Warren Beatty a cookie basket. Adele Dazeem is a distant memory now. #Oscars

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89th Annual Academy Awards - ShowReel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

Count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. Fox’s #GreaseLive!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like Grease (in any of its musical forms – Broadway, film, community theatre, drunken karaoke). And I ain’t never gonna like Grease. There are some catchy songs, and Rizzo is pretty much a Teflon-plated hoot no matter who is applying Stockard Channing’s time-tested performance template (even if Channing herself seemed like a 45-year-old playing that role). Yet, the book (in its countless revisions) can’t decide if it wants to be corny, contrived, plastic sock-hop nostalgia or crude, crass, grimy locker room ick. The character development rarely rises above that of an Archie comic – an uneasy mix of satire, camp, and canonization. And the climactic message of “be yourself … no, wait, don’t be yourself … tease, your hair, slap on Spandex pants, and strut around like an inebriated race horse” (which could describe Danny’s arc as much as it does Sandy’s) is, shall we say, problematic?

So, I came at Sunday’s Grease Live! – Fox’s gambit in the ever-escalating live televised musical arms race – with a bit of trepidation and a whole heap of hate-watching ire in my arsenal. Said arsenal remains unused this Monday morning. The show was actually kind of … good? Maybe I can deploy my ire for the Iowa caucus?

As in the days following NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, and The Wiz Live! (think we could retire the “live” and the exclamation marks, folks?), there will be a lot of digital “ink” spilled and memes/GIFs posted, some fawning, some hypercritical, but one can’t deny that this new genre – that is neither really live (Live!) nor filmed, neither organic/authentic nor polished/accomplished, neither bad nor good – is a happening that energizes viewers, inspires conversation, and piques our collective cultural interest in stage musicals again.

Let it be said that none of the musicals performed to date are anything I would have chosen to perform or to see, left to my own devices. To me, these shows are all tired, shopworn, and clichéd. All have been filmed and/or performed live on television before, and, with the exception of The Wiz, those prior adaptations were more or less already considered definitive. The next wave of shows coming down the pike – Hairspray (?!) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – just affirms that conclusion, though Rocky Horror’s casting – gender-bending an already bent show – may prove intriguing.

For all intents and purposes, these shows are less theatre, more stunt spectacle, as if a monster truck rally and a high school theatre department collaborated for a production that none of us really want to see again but can’t not watch. NBC/Fox could give a fig what theatre snobs think. These shows are a throwback to a time when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind aired annually on network television, when people didn’t think twice when three (!) different television adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella aired over the years, or when plays like Twelve Angry Men could hit Broadway and be a live television event and a major motion picture in rapid succession. It’s called event programming – it’s always existed, it’s always drawn eyeballs and made money for the networks, it’s always had corporate sponsors (Alcoa! Coca-Cola! Frigidaire!) …  and viewers have always said their era was better than the one in which we find ourselves now.

Grease Live! had the spectacle part down pat. There were clever fourth-wall-breaking behind-the-scenes commercial breaks and scene transitions (grimacing host Mario Lopez and those runaway golf carts notwithstanding). The film-worthy indoor/outdoor sets and the acres of Warner Brothers’ backlot dedicated to the production, including a full-fledged amusement park, were incredible (rainstorms notwithstanding). I would love to know how they accomplished the seamlessly gliding transitions from one fully-realized location to the next – notably the transitions from Rizzo’s Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom to a glitzy USO stage and back (Keke Palmer’s star turn on forgotten number “Freddy My Love”) or from gleaming 360 degree art deco diner to “Teen Angel” heaven (Carly Rae Jepsen’s otherwise forgettable new tune “All I Need Is An Angel” and BoyzIIMen’s shaky “Beauty School Dropout”).

Hamilton helmer Thomas Kail’s direction of all the musical numbers (aided and abetted beautifully by Glee alum Zach Woodlee’s loving choreography) was sharp, purposeful, and epic, furthering the narrative in clever ways (Jordan Fisher’s “Those Magic Changes” an early delight, detailing Danny Zukko’s failed efforts to “fit in”) and providing flashy, eye-popping showstoppers (“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lightnin’,” “Born to Hand Jive,” and the finale “You’re the One That I Want/We Go Together” all crackled with a frenetic music video energy … and that’s a good thing). And the costumes (and instantaneous costume changes)?  To die for.  Frothy, cute, and kinetic.

The cast – made up of Disney Channel refugees, Grease movie alumni, and a handful of legit stage stars – wasn’t always able to match the technical prowess, and I suspect Kail was wisely hedging his bets by layering on the gloss and the wow, so we didn’t notice (or care) when a cast member hit a sour note (rarely) or performed their dialogue like they were reading the side of a cereal box (often). Vanessa Hudgens’ Rizzo was the star of the night. Her Rizzo may have lacked pathos, but she added a layer of heartbroken outsider sweetness (not unlike what Laura Benanti brought to Sound of Music’s “Baroness”) that was an appealing counterpoint to all the gum-cracking sass. She infused “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with a welcome playfulness that kept the song from devolving into sheer meanness (as it often does).

The aforementioned Keke Palmer brought presence and poise to her Marty, quietly driving every scene in which she appeared, and Jepsen was appealingly forlorn as pink-haired loser Frenchy. The Pink Ladies, generally, kept the enterprise afloat, with a loveable sauciness that unfortunately was unmatched by the rather forgettable T-Birds. Not a moment stood out for the greasers, though Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko was a singing/dancing marvel. He is arguably the most accomplished musical vet of the cast (Next to Normal, Les Miserables), and it showed, in both good and bad ways. He hit every mark, sang like an angel, and nailed every move and gesture and pose … but he didn’t seem to be having one darn bit of fun. He lacked an impish sparkle that would have sold the performance for the ages, which is a shame, as he did bring a hunky empathy and kindness that actors typically don’t give the role, distracted as they often are with the pompadour and the leather jacket and the cars and the mythically phony “50s-ishness” of it all.

Julianne Hough is not my cup of tea. Never has been. Like Tveit, she has the technical know-how (particularly where movement is concerned) but she has this inherent bland unlikeability that I can’t ever quite get past. Yet, in the case of this production, that quality served her and the show well (to a degree). I’ve never understood why Rizzo, in particular, hates Sandy so much, so quickly. The nebulously defined rivalry over Danny just never works (and is too sexist anyway). So, having a lightly annoying Sandy to motivate a less bullying Rizzo worked for me, whether that was intentional or just a happy accident of chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer was stoic perfection, as the malaprop-spewing Rydell High principal, and Wendell Pierce was fun as an archetypically pompous and inept coach/gym teacher. Didi Conn (Frenchy in the original film) and Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) offered spry cameo turns, and Jessie J (England’s answer to P!nk) did a serviceable job performing the iconic “Grease (Is the Word)” over the opening credits – a tune originally sung by Frankie Valli and written by Barry Gibb for the 1978 film. Never mind that the lyrics to “Grease (Is the Word)” make absolutely no sense (the term “word salad” springs to mind) nor do they have any discernible connection to the plot; the tune’s catchy, we all know it, and it’s perfectly marketable as a pop single. Money, money, money!

In the end, that’s all Grease Live! was every really about anyway. This isn’t great art. This isn’t Great Performances. (Hell,  that high-minded PBS program is underwritten by the Koch Brothers now, isn’t it?) These “live” musicals are an exercise in commerce with a light veneer of artistic pretense. Take some songs you know and a premise you vaguely recall from your youth, mix in a Fantasy Island’s gaggle of dubious “talents,” layer on some high-paying sponsors, promote the sh*t out of it, and count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. #Captalism_Live!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.