Spiritual rebirth led former Miss Michigan to create a musical version of the Passion play opening Detroit Music Hall today

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Posted on March 24, 2013 by menblog

By John Monaghan Detroit Free Press Special Writer March 24, 2013

Religious inspiration comes in many forms. Kelly Garver Nieto’s hit her like a ton of Babylon bricks while she was attending her first-ever Good Friday service in 2000. It was while praying the Stations of the Cross, which uses 14 sequential images to depict the crucifixion of Jesus, that the former nonbeliever experienced what she calls a “life-changing vision.”

“I looked at the altar and saw all the details of this grand theatrical production,” the entertainer and former Miss Michigan remembers. “And I heard God say, ‘This is why you are here.’ I knew in my soul that this would become my life’s mission.”

More than a decade and 40,000 viewers later, her musical Passion play arrives at Music Hall tonight for an 11-performance run that continues through Easter. Titled “The Cross and the Light” and costing an estimated $400,000, the show uses Broadway-style sets, costumes and lighting to bring Christ’s final hours to life.

The show is an expansion of Nieto’s previous show, “The Living Stations of the Cross,” which was first performed in 2002 at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Farmington and moved in 2011 to the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit. Nieto steadily tweaked and refined the show over the years.

The new version ends not with Christ being laid in a tomb (the traditional end for a Stations story) but with his resurrection. It also has a more diverse cast that features local jazz and R&B singer Kenny Watson in the role of Jesus.

“You could say that the previous shows were kind of preaching to the choir,” Nieto says. “We really wanted to broaden our audience to all religious denominations. There are many people who would not go to a cathedral to see a theatrical performance. By using Music Hall, all faiths will feel welcome to share in this timeless Christian story of salvation.”

Spiritual awakening

The road to “The Cross and the Light” has been a long one for Nieto. She was born in Detroit, but her family moved when she was in the fourth grade to Farmington Hills. Aside from attending an occasional Lutheran service, she was raised with little exposure to religion. When she was in her teens and 20s, she began experimenting with various forms of spiritual expression, including what she now calls “New Age occult.”

“My life made no sense to me,” says Nieto, 49. “I would go to psychics and would channel the spiritual entity of souls from the dead, including an Indian. … The big change came when I was told that my mother was going to die. I found none of the things in the New Age had helped me at that moment.”

She made a pact with God and promised to devote herself to Him if her ailing mother’s life was spared. It was. “My mother just turned 75 and ran her first half-triathlon in Florida,” says Nieto, who became a born-again Christian in 1998 and a Catholic in 2000.

The Farmington Hills wife and mother of five has spent most of her adult life working as an entertainer and speaker and on the pageant circuit. She was crowned Miss Michigan in 1986, was third runner-up to Miss America 1987 and has been emcee of the Miss Michigan pageant for 23 years. A fiddle player and musical comedian, she has performed one-woman shows for corporate events and aboard cruise ships and also been an opening act for country artists Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson and Charlie Daniels.

Despite her experience in show business, Nieto had no idea what to do when she felt moved to turn her “Stations” show into a full-blown musical.

“Each one of the songs was born out of prayer,” she says. “I would sit in church for hours and beg God to allow me to know what Jesus experienced in the Garden (of Gethsemane). I wanted to write in a way that people would feel as if they were there and understood his angst.”

When song lyrics and basic melodies began occurring to her, she turned to songwriter Nick Dalbis of White Lake Township to turn her musical ideas into finished works. Those tunes, with titles like “In My Name” and “The Greatest Miracle of All,” are performed in “The Cross and the Light” by actors who sing over recorded musical tracks.

Nieto reached out similarly for help with financing her show. (Ticket sales can’t cover all the costs.) Various businesses and organizations responded, including Comerica Bank and Our Sunday Visitor Catholic Publishing Co., which contributed $30,000 for the set.

Faithful to the book

Some viewers might consider “The Cross and the Light” a cross between a traditional Passion play and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but Nieto is rankled by that comparison. Her show, she notes, takes great pains with biblical accuracy.

“We made sure that our script, including the lyrics, was reviewed by our spiritual director, Father Charles Fox from the Archdiocese of Detroit,” she says. “We didn’t want to take any theatrical liberty with the authentic story. For instance, in Judas’ song ‘Three Years,’ it took three rewrites so that it didn’t imply things that did not stay true to the biblical story.”

Still, she believes that “The Cross and the Light” holds appeal for audience members of many faiths.

“If you love musicals, you will love this show. If you’re a theatergoer, you will love the stage production. And if you love Jesus, you will love this experience because it is so life-changing.”

Watson, the singer-actor who plays Jesus, shares Nieto’s enthusiasm. Though he was trained in more secular musical styles, he found himself embracing the show’s challenging songs, which rely heavily on vocal strength instead of the “tricks and ornamentation” that sometimes mark a jazz or pop tune.

He also found his role challenging emotionally and physically, especially while hanging from the cross.

“Playing Jesus is obviously very humbling,” he says. “Just to look down, with blood all over me, and see the faces of those around me. It changed my perspective forever on what Christ went through with the actual bruises, scars and death awaiting.”

Spreading the word

Melanie Mebus, a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, saw Nieto’s show for the first time last year.

“I went in blind,” she remembers. “I really didn’t have any expectations beyond that it was a biblical re-enactment. The music, the production just blew me away.”

Once the lights came up, she decided she had to meet the woman responsible for it. She developed a relationship with Nieto and is now on the board of directors for Living Faith, a nonprofit group created by Nieto to help low-income children get free tickets for “The Cross and the Light.”

Mebus has donated money to the production and will help sell Christian jewelry, scarves, hats and T-shirts in the lobby this week to raise money for Living Faith.

“It was so deep, so profound. It really touched my soul,” Mebus says. “Whether you have faith or not, you have to appreciate how this is such a personal story, and so beautifully set to music. It reminds me of a Disney production. It is that top-notch.”

She plans to see “The Cross and the Light” this week with several groups of viewers, one of which will include her 17-year-old daughter.

“She has been telling all of our friends to see it,” Mebus says. “When you have a show that affects teenagers this much, there must be something to it.”


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