EXCLUSIVE: You might call it the New Orleans version of Jesus Christ Superstar. On Palm Sunday from 8-10 PM, Fox will present The Passion, a live extravaganza depicting the last hours of Jesus’ life as replayed on the streets of the Crescent City by an all-star cast and set to the rhythms and words of contemporary music. The live show will take place all over New Orleans and throughout the two hours, a 20-foot illuminated cross will be carried through the streets from outside the Superdome to the banks of the Mississippi. The cast includes Jencarlos Canela as Jesus, Trisha Yearwood as Mary, and “Kiss From A Rose” singer Seal as Pontius Pilate. (On Friday, Netflix struck a deal with producer Dick Clark Productions to distribute the broadcast globally shortly after the U.S. presentation.)
The song list for The Passion includes Canela singing Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” as well as such titles as “When Love Takes Over,” “Home” and “My Love is Your Love.” Key to the project, which has its roots in an annual Dutch TV presentation that began five years ago, is Tyler Perry, who will narrate the program in what he told Deadline is an extension of his life work as producer, actor, director and star of stage and screen. Moreover, as a native of New Orleans, he sees The Passion in religious terms as part of the city’s post-Katrina resurrection. Perry’s “If Loving you Is Wrong” just began its third season on OWN.
Live theater is in Perry’s blood, and his directing projects have included the film of Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoem” for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. Deadline spoke with Perry recently by telephone from Los Angeles.
DEADLINE: I guess it’s not too much of a stretch to see why The Passion would appeal to you as a project to join.
PERRY: When the producers first called and sent me the script, I thought, What is this? But when I watched the Netherlands version of it, it just blew me away. And I thought, Anything that makes people feel good and lifted must be good.
DEADLINE: And the location — what meaning does that have for you?
PERRY: There is no better setting than New Orleans, it’s the perfect setting. Of course it’s also what I grew up with. Every Easter Sunday -– it’s a huge thing in every Christian church, but in the Black church especially. Everyone got new clothes, new shoes, hats. Even to this day, the church is just filled with people, there are plays about the Resurrection and His life, and the stories were preached from pulpits.
DEADLINE: You’re an accomplished stage actor. Did you want a role in the storytelling?
PERRY: I was more interested in the narration, that totally works for me, to help move the show along, and it doesn’t require much time. There are lots of rehearsals going on that I’m not part of; I’ll start right before the broadcast.
DEADLINE: Not like the shows you have been doing on the road all your life…
PERRY: Yes, that’s one of the main differences between this and a live theater broadcast. People keep saying this is another one of them and it isn’t. It’s not like theater, with sets and costumes. It’s in the real location. I moved away from New Orleans 22 years ago, but there isn’t an inch of New Orleans, an inch of where the show takes place, that I don’t know. For me, it will draw more on my live stage experience than films. I’ve been on tour with Madea On The Run for a year and a half. When you’re performing for an audience of 20,000 to 30,000 people a weekend, it kind of sharpens your experience, and this will draw on that nerve.
DEADLINE: Were you concerned about whether this presentation would reach out to non-Christian viewers?
PERRY: I know that the intention of everyone involved is to be inclusive. It is a story about love and compassion and forgiveness.
DEADLINE: So, we hear you’ve got a little studio in the works in the East, on the 33-acre site of Fort McPherson Army Base, and it’s quite far along.
PERRY: Oh yes. We’re in the middle of grading and building and it’s really exciting. It’s larger than Warner Brothers, you know.