While the show is based on the Book of St. Matthew, the storyline is minimal in the production. The evening is built more as a musical revue, tied loosely by the biblical narrative of Christ’s last days, from Palm Sunday through the Passion in the Garden (whose passion does not shine now), to Judas’s betrayal, to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
The later elements allow the cast to sing their love for Jesus. Particularly moving is Mills’ all-stops-out version of “See How They Done My Lord” at the top of the second act. Nothing else quite matches it, though Timetta Phillips comes close in the similarly themed “I Love You So Much Jesus.” The musical ends with a positive medley, starting with Pendergrass, rocking in his electric wheelchair to which he has been confined since his 1982 auto accident, to the company singing “Didn’t I Tell You” and a finale incorporating the title song.
Talley Beatty’s choreography, as reproduced and amended by Phaze Farrington, pulls the show down early. It does not inspire. The dancing in act two, however, is more lively and complex.
In addition, Mills and Pendergrass seem like add-ons, not connected to the rest of the ensemble. No one holds or hugs either, for instance — they are not part of the choreography.
Also missing is the humor and good cheer found in the original production. The most interesting event on opening night, in fact, was when a man, who turned out to be an audience member, appeared on stage and posed as Christ. It lent the show some needed tension.
William Schroder’s set — stylized stained glass windows and pews with a steeply raked staircase in the center — lends multiple levels to the stage and offers more possibilities than the dancers use. Schroder’s costume design, particularly the African-inspired garb in the Biblical scenes, brings visual vitality.
The live band and the well-chosen voices of the cast do justice to the music and lyrics by Alex Bradford, H.B. Barnum, Micki Grant and Rev. Melvin Dawson. There’s little, though, to move people from the same music on CD to seeing it sung onstage.
In updating her script with mentions of TV, VCRs, Bart Simpson and more, perhaps director Carroll — who herself has been an inspiration to many for decades — has inadvertently bypassed the freshness of her original version.