The Passion worked an offbeat sensibility and somewhat random aesthetic but wound up a rather interesting, and at times quite compelling, TV experience.
The Passion aimed to retell the final hours of the life of Jesus, as depicted in The Bible. It used a mix of dramatic readings based on the Gospel text, music, narration and the procession of a giant illuminated cross through the streets of New Orleans to get across the emotional impact of its message.
A carefully curated mix of pop, rock and R&B songs formed the backbone of The Passion. Familiar tunes like “My Love Is Your Love,” “Home,” “The Reason,” “I Won’t Give Up” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” often radically rearranged, were used to illuminate some of the key moments of Jesus’s final hours. Key scenes included the entrance to the city, the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden and Jesus’s Arrest, Peter’s denials and the trial before Pilate. The Passion staged these iconic Biblical moments on the streets of New Orleans, using modern dress and gritty urban locales to put a contemporary sheen on the proceedings.
The Passion featured a fairly impressive cast. The event was quarterbacked by writer/director Tyler Perry, a New Orleans native, who served as host and narrator. One might have expected somberness, but Perry was so enthused to by the production that he was endearingly stoked a lot of the time, though he was able to whip up appropriate seriousness when called for. The performing cast included Jencarlos Canela as Jesus, Chris Daughtry as Judas, Prince Royce as Peter, Seal as Pontius Pilate and Trisha Yearwood as Mary.
Canela was a rather magnetic and expressive lead. He brought a lot of grace and emotion to his performance and elevated cuts like the Creed treacle “With Arms Wide Open” into something compelling. Daughtry was quite good as Judas. He ripped into a fierce version of “Bring Me To Life” as a way of communicating the traitor’s conflicted emotions about betraying his savior. Canela and Daughtry teamed for a rather gripping duet on “Demons” as the backdrop to Jesus’s arrest. That choice could have been too on-the-nose, but the two performers committed and made it work.
Yearwood may have been the evening’s MVP. Much of the early action occurred in pre-taped segments produced in the city that were displayed for the large live crowd on a towering video screen. Yearwood anchored the live performances on site, delivering her emotion-packed songs to a highly receptive audience in person. Her take on Lifehouse’s “Broken,” delivered as Mary’s heartbroken lament for her dead son, was The Passion’s emotional centerpoint. Seal was quite good as Pilate, delivering “Mad World” as the governor’s bewildered response to the fate of Jesus. The evening climaxed with Canela, standing atop a roof overlooking the live crowd, singing “Unconditionally” while the rest of the cast gathered onstage for singalong support.
Passion plays and church pageants have long histories and The Passion tapped into that spirit. A large rock orchestra and multicultural choir kept the stage proceedings lively. Perry lapsed into carnival showman at times, but was never less than sincere. The images of the procession of the cross could be quite powerful. But the decision to feature live interviews where people explained why they’d joined the procession may have been a tonal misstep. Not that those stories weren’t interesting, but they tended to take the viewer out of the moment.
The final third of The Passion may have been its most compelling. After the pre-taped segments had finished and the cross arrived at the live location, the cast emerged onstage for the final segments and those felt like they had more gravitas and impact, possibly because the distracting side elements were pushed to the background.
The choice of New Orleans as the staging ground was interesting. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina and the city is still living its own resurrection story, adding another thematic layer. The modern staging led to a couple of pointed moments. Especially provocative was the arrest of Jesus, staged as riot gear-clad cops taking a young man of color into custody as his friends protested. It was an uncomfortable reminder of recent real world tensions. That social justice element of the story was referenced more than one.
Though steeped in Christian lore, The Passion tried its hardest to be inclusive, emphasizing the material’s message of unity, peace and tolerance. A feat the production managed without diluting the religious content.
Ultimately, the random and chaotic moments of The Passion were a big part of its charm. It was kind of scruffy and had its own oddball sensibility. But when it worked, it worked really well and achieved a kind of moving grace that was quite compelling. It’s nice that there’s still room for something like this in the modern TV landscape.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on March 21, 2016.