Lord have mercy.
There’s nothing new about Passion plays; these theatrical interpretations of the last days of Jesus have been a seasonal staple since the Middle Ages. And these days, there’s nothing brand new about live musicals: Fox's Sunday broadcast of "The Passion" was the network's second this year, after "Grease." Though to be accurate, "The Passion" was only live in part; most of the story segments appeared to be pre-filmed and, it seems, pre-sung.
Still, as familiar as those forms might be, it's doubtful many of us ever thought we'd see them mashed together into one semi-live, Jesus-jukebox musical — hosted and narrated by Tyler Perry from a New Orleans stage on the banks of the Mississippi. Nor did we expect to see one of mankind's greatest stories, a tale and event that launched one of the world's great religions, reduced to broad, borrowed pop-song bromides. It was well-sung, to be sure; it just wasn't well thought out.
Rather than use original music, "The Passion" tweaked the lyrics to old favorites, often to odd effect. Chris Daughtry's Judas singing "Wake Me Up Inside" might have conveyed the suffering of a man in turmoil (as Perry spelled it out for us as soon as the song ended), but it told you nothing specific about the turmoil of the man who was about to betray Jesus. And while Trisha Yearwood's version of "I Won't Give Up On Us" was lovely, it still felt far more romantic than maternal, just as Yearwood felt more Country Star than Virgin Mother.
The show she was in also felt as much like a concert as a play -- and seldom the twain met. Yearwood's Mary may have been singing about Jesus, but she never interacted with him. While he was mostly seen in segments shot around the city, she sang to the crowd gathered in front of that big white stage, belting out "You'll Never Walk Alone" to no one in particular.
If Yearwood carried much of the musical burden, the story was carried by Perry and Jencarlos Canela, who played the Messiah as if he were a teen idol leading a boy band of apostles. For most of "The Passion," Canela was confined to those filmed segments, finally appearing on stage -- his hair now mussed to convey suffering -- for Seal's Pontius Pilate to sentence him to death. Unlike traditional Passion plays, however, this version did not show his death: Perry told us about the crucifixion and the resurrection, as the camera cut to Canela, standing on top of a building singing "Unconditionally."
And then the saints were marching in, with the whole cast dancing — including Entertainment Tonight’s Nischelle Turner, whose gushing interviews as she followed the procession carrying a lighted cross through the streets made a strange evening even stranger. Oh, and in case you were wondering: The cross made it on time and in one piece, which is not the way some were betting before the broadcast started.
There's no doubt this broadcast, as sanitized of actual passion as it may have been, fits within a great artistic tradition. From those early Passion plays through such works as "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," people have long used theater as a way to bring this story to life, and to speak to different people at different times in ways they can understand. And there's no question many in the crowd were moved; there were tear-stained faces during Perry's recounting of the crucifixion and cheers when he reached the resurrection. If you were one of those people for whom this version worked, then God bless.
But please, have mercy on the rest of us.
(Robert Bianco writes for USA Today)