Even though market research appeared to indicate otherwise, faith-based audiences have shown little to almost no interest in recent faith-based films. Risen failed to draw audiences out of their homes, while the more recent The Young Messiah couldn’t survive an overwhelming savage response from reviewers. Hollywood has to be nervous, particularly after seeing its large scale investment with the recent Gerard Butler epic Gods of Egypt disappear unnoticed.
Just ahead of the Easter weekend comes another faith-based film, though unlike those above-mention productions, this time it comes with a difference. Around the country on Tuesday, March 22, Fathom Events present a special one-night only showing of a new oratorio musical from Broadway director Daniel Goldstein. Easter Mysteries is a re-telling of Christ’s death and resurrection as sung and performed by veterans of the Broadway stage, though, in truth, even though the production has a big screen showing, it’s not really a film; it’s a recording of a theatrical event performed in front of a live audience.
Hunter College is a university located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and that’s where Easter Mysteries was performed. Because of its theatrical origins, actors deliver their lines and sing their songs in a manner that may appear broad on a large screen; they’re not playing to a camera, they’re playing to an auditorium, so when they sing, they’re singing to a packed house, and when they speak, they’re projecting so that even those in the back row can hear.
True to its passion play origins, the set for Easter Mysteries is a simple sparse, wooden structure consisting mostly of a series of large platforms that climb to a blank, open-screened backdrop. Change of time or location comes with lights and shadows cast across those ascending platforms, while actors carry smaller blocks and place them where they can be used as steps to climb either up or down.
The artificiality of the presentation works better as a live event. If you were part of that audience at Hunter College, as with any theatrical event, you would overlook the simulated setting and easily accept that what you’re watching is a perfectly acceptable representation of Gethsemane or wherever else the story is taking you. Watching a recording of theatre on film doesn’t always work, but in this case, the intended audience for Easter Mysteries will presumably overlook its cinematic shortcomings; they’re not interested so much in artistic style, just as long as the content is respectful and true to their beliefs, which Easter Mysteries clearly is.
Unlike Jesus Christ Superstar where the story was told from the perspective of a troubled Judas, Easter Mysteries tells the same but from the point of view of a troubled and faith-tested Peter (Kevin Earley). With music and lyrics by John O’Boyle, the songs are used not to stop the show but to propel events forward. Lyrics are either conversations or thoughts, illustrating the confused or troubled feelings of the characters as they grapple with their faith and the reality of what they can or can’t see. After Jesus’ crucifixion – an event we thankfully never observe – angels singing of good news appear before Mary Magdalene (Erin Davie), though when she tries to tell Peter of the things she has witnessed, Peter can’t believe her. Nor can he believe that Jesus (Wallace Smith) appeared before Mary outside of the cave. “There is no one more loyal than I,” Peter had earlier told Jesus, but now that his faith is tested, he can’t find it within him to believe of either angels or a resurrection, unless he can see it for himself.
As performed by this hugely talented, multi-cultural cast of the Broadway stage, as expected, voices soar with the kind of sound and professional quality you would expect from a New York production. The songs, as already mentioned, serve the story and are delivered with a definite Broadway flair, but when backed by what sounds like only a piano, a violin and a cello, there’s an overall emptiness to the sound. Despite inventive lyrics and a change of pace and rhythm from song to song, the sparse musical arrangement causes everything to sound similar. Again, if you were part of that live audience, you may not feel the same, but as a recording projected on a movie theatre screen, that sense of musical emptiness is only highlighted further.
It would be interesting to hear this same score sung by those same, trained voices but backed by a full and lush orchestration. Even though such grand arrangements are not part of an overall, modest passion play design, when projected on a big screen, it would still make all the difference. This well-written and well-performed piece deserves it.
The musical production last approximately eighty-six minutes, but stay for the Interfaith Panel Discussion that follows the presentation. Steven D. Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register hosts a dialogue with several religious leaders covering the subject of faith and belief and whether Easter Mysteries successfully incorporates those themes, followed by a Q&A with the Hunter College audience.
Interested parties can book tickets for Easter Mysteries in advance at www.FathomEvents.com. Local valley audiences can see a presentation of the film, Tuesday, March 22, 7pm at AMC Desert Ridge, AMC Surprise Pointe, AMC Ahwatukee, AMC Westgate; Cinemark Mesa