Well! I was deciding whether or not to confess that I have been one of those fans tucked away in the tiny airless room of the Most Unpopular of Unpopular Opinions...because I really, really like the 2000 production. Like, a lot. Glad to see there are others that at least appreciate it a bit. Make no mistake: I grew up on the movie, but there were aspects of it that always grated, and it never really stirred me much, even though I liked the music well enough. (I got to JCS via an earlier rabid fandom of "Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" which I had an original cast record of that I played into oblivion...) I was fascinated by the setting--I really wanted to go to Israel all through my teens & young adulthood, so I loved seeing the landscape. Disclosure: I grew up Jewish, and have been an atheist much of my adult life; JCS has never had religious or spiritual resonance for me. However, I've long been interested, historically, in 1st-century Palestine and have read a lot of books about it, including a number dealing with whether or not there was a "historical Jesus." All of that makes the most interesting bit of the musical for me the story of Judas, as a pragmatist and someone acting in resistance to the Roman occupation, so I liked that stuff. Unfortunately--even though I like the songs and sometimes acting involved--it's also why the part I dislike the most is the "trial" before Pilate, because it perpetuates that pernicious old anti-Semitic canard that the the Jews "killed" Jesus and that Pilate was helplessly backed into a corner regarding his actions.
That's one of the things I so loved about the 2000 production: Fred Johanson was positively terrifying as Pilate, much more in line with historical reality. You don't really get the feeling that the crowd could make him do anything. I liked the atmosphere of the conflict being revolutionary against an occupying force; that's actually what a lot of the messianic leaders that did indeed pop up in droves at the time were about, and Jerome Pradon really captured that. And I liked Rik Mayall's scarier Herod to Josh Mostel's camp version (though I thought the latter was effing hilarious when I was a teenager, heh...). It was the first production that really captured that energy for me, and engaged me.
I was actually kind of stoked to see the set and costuming initially with tonight's production, because it seemed to draw at least somewhat from that more modernized version (I was afraid they were going to try to echo the hippie sensibility of the movie, and while that worked for the time, I don't think it would have worked well here). They definitely leaned harder on the spiritual sensibility than the revolutionary one, and that's okay; many of the performances were very very good, as others have noted: Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas, and MM all impressed me.
And yeah, John Legend as Jesus was definitely the weak link here. Actually, most of the Jesuses from various versions of JCS tend to be (including 2000's)--pretty much except Ted Neely, who did indeed kind of break the mold. There were a couple of moments with Legend that really took me out of the flow: during "Hosanna" when the crowd sings "Won't you die for me?" I was disappointed to see that Legend was just grinning and bopping along with the song. It's a small moment, but in other productions, it's a profound and dissonant one: when Jesus (and usually Judas, too) is startled and disturbed to realize what the cheering crowd is asking of him. It was kind of emblematic of his whole performance: he often seemed to be singing the words to his songs, on cue, but not listening to what they mean, or those of the other songs. I found him either dazed and detached, or kind of petulant most of the time. I'm sorry to say that his performance in the crucifixion scene left me cold, too; he intoned everything exactly the same way, and frankly I got no sense of anguish or pain. And Gethsemane...well, that's supposed to be a rending journey that leaves Jesus emotionally wrecked...and again, I got no sense of that. I think, in the end, he just didn't have the acting chops, which is too bad.
But oh, yeah, Brandon Victor Dixon for the win.
Heh. 100% with you on "Smoke on the Water." My very first introduction to hard rock was that song, played by a live band (local cover band, not Deep Purple, pout) at a dance when I was about 12 (back in the Cretaceous...), during a co-ed sleepover weekend with the Jewish youth group I'd just joined which took place...at our synagogue! It is, bar none, the baddest of badass rock, and those opening chords are the ultimate time machine for me: instant teenager. And yet, I never knew Ian Gillan did JCS!