Last night’s “feature” was a preposterous program on the Fox network called The Passion, which was billed as a dramatization of the life of Jesus — or at least the last week or so of it — but turned into a show I can only call “God-awful.” The show opened in a big outdoor stadium in New Orleans, where the entire thing took place, and the big ballyhoo was that it was being performed live — though of course we, being on the West Coast and therefore sucking hind tit as far as the New York media moguls are concerned, were watching it on a three-hour tape delay. The gimmick — well, there were several gimmicks, but one of them was that the main stadium (they identified it but did it so quickly I didn’t catch the name of the venue) would be the setting for the orchestra, the chorus and Trisha Yearwood, who played Mary. Jesus and his disciples would be seen in various urban locales making their way to the main venue; they arrived in town for Palm Sunday on a New Orleans trolley and Judas announced his intention to betray Jesus on a weird construction of various pipes — I wondered if they had picked this site because it would be a picturesque venue for him to hang himself from later, but they didn’t go that far. While the cast was moving around the city, in other news a giant white cross was being carried to the main site by a group of volunteers — they were holding it like a coffin instead of dragging it the way the traditional (and wrong) depictions of the Crucifixion have depicted it (the real way a crucifixion was done was the victim carried the top bar of the cross and then it was attached to a permanent stake in the ground — Franco Zeffirelli, in his 1970’s TV-movie Jesus of Nazareth, is the only director I can recall who got it right) — and newscasters were following the procession and asking various parties in it how they felt about being there. What’s more, the writer/director, Peter Barsocchini, came up with a script that only gave five of the principals — Jesus (Jencarlos Canela), Peter (Prince Royce), Judas (Chris Daughtry), Pilate (Seal) and Mary (Trisha Yearwood) — featured roles. Christ’s other 10 apostles became what Anna Russell would have called “a homogenous chorus — as in milk,” basically reduced to following him around and so undifferentiated in Barsocchini’s script they’re not even listed by name on the show’s imdb.com page — just as “Disciple.” Even worse was the lame-brained decision to follow Baz Luhrmann’s example in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge! and, instead of commissioning a new score (or using an existing pop-rock setting of the Passion Play like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar or Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell), to shoehorn in existing pop-rock songs that didn’t even begin to fit in to the story.
The host — what in Johann Sebastian Bach’s time would have been called “The Evangelist” — was Tyler “Madea” Perry, whose continued popularity with the so-called “faith” audience is pretty inexplicable (though give them points for making a Black drag queen into a superstar!), and he was personable but had, like everyone else who actually got a line or more, to recite Barsocchini’s awful faith-based dialogue, which occasionally contained an actual line from the Bible that just stuck out compared to the horrible sludge of Barsocchini’s own writing. The one redeeming (to use a word with religious connotations!) grace (another one!) of this production was Trisha Yearwood, who isn’t exactly one of the most intensely emotional singers of all time but whose cool professionalism soared above the rest of the cast even despite the risible choices of songs for her to sing (she was supposed to be mourning the impending crucifixion of her son and the song they gave her to do that with was the old Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece of bathos, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — Ray Charles turned that into an intense and legitimately soulful piece on his 1963 album Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul, which also contains by far the best non-Judy Garland version of “Over the Rainbow,” but no one else has managed to pull it off) and the horrible dress she was wearing, a blue thing with a slash across the top of it to reveal the tops of her breasts: an odd costume indeed for someone who was supposed to be playing the Virgin Mother of God. The show’s silliest moments were the duet for Jesus and Judas when Jesus learns Judas has just betrayed him (and before he’s arrested by helmeted riot police and makes his next appearance in an orange prison jumpsuit — I guess on this show orange was the new Jewish) and the later one for Jesus and Pilate (to quote another Anna Russell line, “I’m not making this up, you know!”) to Tina Turner’s big song from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” (As long as they were using that song, couldn’t they have got Tina out of retirement and had her play Mary Magdalene?)
Otherwise The Passion was an excessively silly show with a score of such stupefying banality it made Andrew Lloyd Webber sound like Bach by comparison, and limp performances of these bad songs by everyone in the cast aside from Yearwood (I used to really like Seal, but here he sank to the level of his duet partner). I remember the hissy-fit my mom had when she and I watched the trailer for the film of Jesus Christ Superstar and she said, “Oh, no, they didn’t make Judas Black” — this time, at least, Judas was white and it was Pilate who was Black! It also didn’t help that Jencarlos Canela (supposedly a star of telenovelas in Mexico) as Jesus and Prince Royce as Peter looked quite a lot alike — the only visible difference is Peter had more facial hair — or that they were both such mediocre performers they became oppressive screen presences even though they’re quite attractive young men who should have been fun at least to look at, if not to hear! Supposedly this sort of setting of The Passion has become a regular feature on Dutch TV, where it’s been aired regularly since its debut in 2011 — but as far as I’m concerned the Dutch can keep it. And as for Peter Barsocchini: forgive him, Lord, for he knows not what he does!