A Passion Play for our Times

crossandlight Reviews Leave a Comment

April 11, 2014 John Quinn
Beginning in the 17th century, the town of Oberammergau, Bavaria has presented a play based on the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth, as recounted in the New Testament. It’s an endeavor of epic proportions, with a cast of hundreds. It will next be performed in 2020. Other than its big scope and common subject matter, the German production differs from Nieto Productions’ “The Cross and the Light,” which returns Friday to Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. Oberammergau is a pageant; stiff and ritualistic. “The Cross and the Light” is strongly grounded in the very American traditions of musical theater. While remaining reverential to the source material, the creators were not afraid to retell “the greatest story ever told” in contemporary terms.
“The Cross and the Light” follows the Gospels’ narratives from the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, commemorated as Palm Sunday, to the disciples’ first venture in evangelization, known now as Pentecost. The central character is the same, but the emphasis driving the narrative is not the same as in other musicals drawn from the same source – Jesus as teacher (“Godspell”) or Judas as Grecian-style tragic hero (“Jesus Christ Superstar”). This Jesus is a leader, and how that leadership influences his followers is the main theme. In keeping with that idea, a big part of the narrative is carried by the apostles Peter and Thomas. Played here by singers of extraordinarily gifted tenors – Joshua Gronlund as Peter and Tim Bowman, Jr. as Thomas – their motivations take on an unexpected fervor.
Church-based theater became a common instructional device in medieval Christianity, and many separate works eventually were combined into the Passion plays. “The Cross and the Light” – like “Superstar” – integrates the Magdalene plays, and Ashley Rozanski’s sweet soprano can turn to rasping sorrow in a heartbeat. But here we also find elements of the (other) Mary plays, Mary the Mother of Jesus. Beth Lackey brings her character out from behind the veil; her rendition of the lamentations at the cross is beautiful.
But there’s no story without the strong central character, and Kenny Watson succeeds on all fronts. His Jesus is approachable, warm and gentle. Watson, like all the principals in this production, possesses a killer voice. The vocal arrangements are challenging, and it is remarkable to hear such uniform quality.
“The Cross and the Light” is the creation of Kelly Nieto, who serves as executive producer. Directorial responsibilities for herding this huge cast fall to Dominique Lowell and Brian LeDuc, who also serves as musical director. For this year’s staging, six new songs arranged by Nashville artist John Hinchey have been added to the score. Patrons of previous productions are in for a much more integrated experience.
Is “The Cross and the Light” a musical for everybody? Although the musical numbers can stand on their own, the production is suitably Christocentric and is most enjoyable if one can say, “I’m a believer!”

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