Every person has their own cross to bear. This writer’s cross was the unenviable task of watching Tyler Perry’s “The Passion.” The live-broadcast musical aimed to re-tell the story of Jesus’ final days in the setting of modern day New Orleans, but, you know, without the problems or the pleasures of modern day New Orleans.
Before the spectacle, producers made much ado about the unpredictable nature of live television. Yes, there were a couple glitches and a very cold audience, but the nature of the beast was not an issue. In fact, the pivotal scenes were largely pre-recorded. The problem was in the writing itself.
Regardless of faith (or lack thereof), the bible makes for some compelling narratives. Many literary critics have referenced the holy book as one of literature’s greatest works. However, Perry managed to strip a time-proven master-work of it’s appeal and replace the narrative with himself along with lots of Trisha Yearwood.
Apparently dressing Yearwood in a formal ball gown qualified her as Mary, Jesus’s mother. Her attire for was far superior to Jesus’ outfits. Initially, Jesus appears like a hipster in a white shirt and jacket. However, it looked like Perry found some leftover garb from his 2009 hit Madea Goes to Jail because orange prison jumpsuits are the new black in this production as well. But, picking at the costuming is a sidetone to conceptual issues.
For starters, there was the cross. At the center of the production was a much ballyhooed 20 foot lighted cross that was carried from the Super Dome to Perry’s 10-story stage in Woldenburg Park. 20 feet is not as large as one would think, and the effect was underwhelming. The cross itself looked like a mix of formica and light-boxes straight out of a 1989 night club. The cross-bearers were hyped as a cross-section (pun intended) of NOLA’s populace, but at show-time, the task was dominated by the Salvation Army. These guys came across a lot creepier and more paramilitary than they do when ringing bells for charity at Christmas.
Nischelle Turner of Entertainment Tonight also followed the cross. She was given the role of providing sideline interviews with clearly pre-screened members of the procession. The screening could have been executed better; these one-on-ones were awkward and forced. Apparently, normal people do not arrive at interviews with the prepackaged answers offered by celebrities on the red carpet that Nischelle normally deals with. But, where it all really went awry was the introduction of the Katrina-card on the very first question.
Katrina and rebirth were mentioned time and time again. There was no attempt to explain said rebirth nor were there any mentions of the levee breaks. There were many attempts to build belief in Jesus, but it was the city not religion that the audience was asked to anoint with with blind faith. By the time, The Passion ended, one was almost nostalgic for the K+10 ceremonies. Please tell me about resilience!
And, then there was the modernization issue. The first time we meet Jesus and the disciples, they are having out in Cafe Envie on Decatur. The group should have ordered the cafe’s popular “Breakfast in a Cup” and stayed put for the next two hours. Instead, the audience is treated to a cover of Phillip Phillips’ “Home.” From there, Jesus (Jenccarlos Canela) goes to a food truck to buy bread for the last supper. After a quick Judas interlude, we learn that Jesus and the disciples don’t actually live in the Quarter. They actually sleep under the entry ramp to the Crescent City Connection. True to real life, the NOPD arrive, clear out the homeless encampment beneath the bridge, and then arrest Jesus.
The NOPD play the bad guys for the remainder of the show. Even Pontius Pilate and Judas are offered some redemptive human qualities. They round up Jesus, hunt his friends, and drive him around in a paddy wagon while Perry offers narration from the stage.
Interludes to the story were also offered by pop hits repurposed and rammed into the plot. Undoubtably, Seal’s performance as Pilate peaks when he performs Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” followed by Tears For Fears’ “Mad World.” The songs are offered as explanation of Pilate’s decision to crucify Christ. Here is blasphemy bordering on blasphemy. “Hero” does not evoke faith; rather, it is reminiscent of the reason it was written—the theme of Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome. Likewise, “Mad World” was already brilliantly repackaged for Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.
Just as one realizes that the pieces just don’t fit together, Perry appears to deliver a graphic explanation of the crucifixion process. This unnecessary piece of gore reminds us of many early passion plays designed to spread fear. It is the final nail, literally, in this production’s coffin.
The conclusion features Canela rising from the grave to ascend the roof of the Westin Hotel where he serenades the audience along with the Steamboat Natchez. While his vocals are spot-on, it is a final piece of absurdity fitting for the two preceding hours.