After a critically acclaimed leap into the live TV musicals game with “Grease: Live,” Fox took a step back Sunday night with “The Passion,” its scattered live original musical special that recounted the last hours of the life of Jesus Christ.
The two-hour event played less like a musical and more like an “American Idol” finale, with live performances from Yolanda Adams, Trisha Yearwood and Seal mixed with pre-recorded video segments and narration from Tyler Perry.
“The Passion” was billed as a tribute to New Orleans, with a crowd of locals carrying through the streets an illuminated, 20-foot cross. Beginning at the Superdome, the procession symbolized how New Orleans residents came together to rebuild the city after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
It was a touching image overall, but that’s sadly where the New Orleans integration really began and ended.
Except for show-closer “When the Saints Go Marching In,” surprisingly no jazz songs were used in the score. Producers instead opted for a selection of familiar rock hits, like Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open,” Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” and Hoobastank’s “The Reason.”
Though sung well, all were arranged as ballads, greatly slowing down the evening’s pace. “The Passion” could have used an up-tempo number here or there.
One Broadway show tune was featured in “The Passion” -- the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from 1945’s “Carousel.”
It’s hard to judge any of the acting, since most of the book scenes were brief. Jencarlos Canela (NBC’s “Telenovela”) was a fine Jesus though his filmed segments didn’t give him much to do emotionally. “Idol” runner-up Chris Daughtry sounded great as Judas, but his performance won’t jump-start his acting career anytime soon.
Yearwood, as Mary, was given the most to sing, and proved to be a reliable anchor to the evening. Her renditions of Whitney Houston’s “Your Love is My Love,” Jewel’s “Hands” and Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up” were highlights.
Seal, as Pontius Pilate, did the most visible acting, sentencing Jesus to crucifixion and bursting into his rendition of Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” While meant to be dramatic, the song choice came across funny, as did staging the resurrection on top of a Westin hotel.
Perry’s narration, while sincere, read to the audience like Ryan Seacrest trying to kill time before crowning someone the next American Idol (Sample: “Hey Jesus, Can I get a selfie?”). Another misstep: The self-congratulatory man-on-the-street interviews conducted by entertainment reporter Nischelle Turner.
Kudos to Fox for trying something new with “The Passion.” But Jesus’s story deserved a more structured and dramatic telling. Fox would have been better off adapting a known property, like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Maybe next Easter?