Equal parts sermon and Super Bowl halftime show, Fox’s The Passion live event from New Orleans tonight was an Easter basket overstuffed with sincerity, good intentions and hammy musical performances, all melting into a big batch of goo faster than a chocolate bunny in the sun.
“If Jesus walked into this city today,” emcee Tyler Perry wondered early on, “would we listen to Him, or just say, Hey, Jesus — can we get a selfie?” That’s the kind of painfully hip groaner that’s had Sunday school kids rolling their eyes since singing nuns discovered folk guitar, but the massive outdoor audience didn’t seem to mind. Frequent reaction shots revealed tears, chuckles and plenty of testifying.
(If you missed it, Netflix recently struck a deal with producer Dick Clark Productions to distribute the broadcast globally shortly after the tonight’s presentation.)
The passion-play segments, ruthlessly condensed and fully reliant on Perry’s stagebound exposition, shared screen time with live remote views as a 20-foot illuminated crucifix was carried by an ever-growing procession from the Super Dome to the stage in Woldenberg Park. News-style interviews featured apparently pre-screened marchers, including a soldier and a woman whose teenage son was lost to “senseless violence” three years ago.
Back on the huge, gleaming white stage in Woldenberg Park, Perry was joined by stars including Yolanda Adams, Seal as a dark-suited Pontius Pilate (singing, naturally, “We Don’t Need Another Hero” and, in the night’s best musical moment, “Mad World”) and, mostly, Trisha Yearwood. She ostensibly played Mary, mother of Jesus, but pretty much just stood center stage and effectively belted out popular non-hymn hits and standards from “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to “With Arms Wide Open.”
With this crowded roster of players and elements, The Passion mostly avoided any contemporary commentary, unless we count those police-as-villains or Jesus and his fellow cross-bound convicts attired in Orange-Is-The-New-Black jumpsuits. In what might have been an anti-capital punishment message, Perry described a crucifixion in gruesome step-by-step detail. “What’s happening to Jesus in these moments is beneath humanity,” he said. Nevertheless, unlike most Passion Plays, he left the visuals to the imagination.
Oddly, Perry, who should know this stuff by heart, stumbled time and again on the Teleprompter. Then again, we can forgive, since he was stuck with the bulk of a script that wasn’t fine-tuned over the centuries. The Apostle Peter, Perry told us, was “one of Jesus’ best friends.” Cutting to a commercial, he intoned, “When we return, Judas struggles with an unthinkable decision. We’ll be right back.” The commercialization of Christmas had nothing on Fox’s Easter.
Commendably, the event entirely avoided the Passion pitfalls of history, handing the “give us Barabbas!” cries to the crowd rather than any scapegoated minority. It was the evening’s rare moment of restraint, and rather inspired.