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Being in the 'Jesus Christ Superstar' audience was like a religious experience

by Randee Dawn / / Source: TODAY

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On Easter Sunday night, millions tuned in to watch "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert" on NBC — and undoubtedly had a thrilling experience. But there were 1,200 of us who actually got to be in the room where it happened. I was one of them, and yes: You can blame me, in part for all of that screaming.

Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert - Season 2018
John Legend saves the day in "Jesus Christ Superstar."Eric Liebowitz/NBC

Screaming was the name of the game, of course. "Superstar" is a retelling of Jesus' final week on Earth, written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1970, but the producers wanted a real rock concert, and that meant lots of cheering, shouting and over-the-top enthusiasm.

That decision had both ups … and downs.

It's a massive undertaking to corral more than a thousand people into a room for three hours, but I promise you: Being part of that audience is something of an endurance test. Audience members could check in as early as 3:30; I showed up with my friend Ian around 5. We noshed on cheese and pizza and enjoyed the open bar — as well as a little celeb spotting (hi, Zach Braff!) — before being ushered onto a bus that got a little bit lost on the way to the venue.

Jesus Christ Superstar
My ticket to the show and special silver wristband.Courtesy Randee Dawn

We still got to the Armory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with about two hours to kill. It's a vast, cavernous space that the crew had packed to the rafters with rigging, bleachers and the impressive main set. We spent our time pointing out all the different places musicians were tucked away among the scaffolding, and admiring the intentionally crumbling ruins that made up the set's walls.

Jesus Christ Superstar
A look at the stage set before the show got underway.Courtesy Randee Dawn

We hid our belongings in the black tote bag provided and tucked it under our seats. Then we started longing for water, and regretting that the bathrooms were a security check away — across the street.

But it was entertaining all on its own to see the venue fill up; our seat side neighbor pointed out John Legend's mother in the crowd, and down on the ground people had begun filling up the open pits around the camera — they were the true cheering crowd for the cameras. We were just happy to have seats!

At last, showtime! Everyone had a terrific, clear view of the whole performance. The kinetic, energetic chorus had us excited and leaning forward from moment one, but there was something of a three-ring circus feel to watching the stage: For the broadcast, directors would choose their shots, but we had visual access to everything all at once.

Jesus Christ Superstar
The view from the bleachers: Legend leads the faithful mid-show.Courtesy Randee Dawn

Then came the first commercial break, and someone in the crowd shouted, "I believe!"

We knew how he felt.

Throughout the show there was so much to see — we loved the cast diversity (not just gender and ethnicity but also body type) and by the time the stars: John Legend (Jesus Christ), Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalene) and showstopper Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas Iscariot) started making their appearances, we were totally swept up. Legend sailed like a tall ship among his followers; Bareilles was an earthy, grounding presence (alas, the role as written doesn't have much to do); and Dixon completely mesmerized with presence and emotion.

Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert - Season 2018
Sara Bareilles as Mary giving comfort to Jesus (Legend).Peter Kramer/NBC

The only real complaint? It was hard to hear. See, everyone kept screaming and clapping. We could hear Bareilles just fine, because her songs were soft and quiet, but for much of the rest of the show it was difficult to make out many lines. And unlike in a real concert — or even during a stage performance — the performers couldn't wait for us to settle down.

Jesus Christ Superstar
The lowering of the ceremonial light laser.Courtesy Randee Dawn

There were approximately 11 commercial breaks, which sometimes came fast and furious; a song would end, lights would go up, and we'd hear "three minutes," which sounded like a very long commercial break. For us it was a chance to check social media and post pictures that the audience wouldn't see at home.

It was all a very well-oiled machine: lights up, key actors offstage, shovel the glitter, lower the laser beam-like lights, re-align the giant table, bring back the cast, and … we're back!

Jesus Christ Superstar
Glitter cleanup, Aisle 3!Courtesy Randee Dawn

Still, as wondrous as the whole experience was, our spirits flagged after the 9:30 break — and fortunately, that was the perfect moment to wheel out a giant flat screen TV that faced the stage. It wasn't until after Alice Cooper had brilliantly come and gone with "King Herod's Song" and a slew of dancing girls that one of us speculated: maybe that TV set had his lines scrolling by!

Now that we were re-energized, the rest of the show came like a one-two-three gut punch: Judas' suicide (done tastefully off-camera), his return for the big final number in a glittery, silver outfit that took my breath away, and of course the crucifixion and Jesus being carried offstage into the light.

After which the performers came out for their much deserved bows, and there was dancing and much taking of selfies, and everyone was joyous again. As executive producer Mark Platt said in an onstage introduction before the show, it was both opening … and closing night for the spectacle. True lightning in a bottle.

Can we get an amen?

Follow Randee Dawn on Twitter.

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