The story of JESUS as a musical: Let’s face it, that idea will probably bring a number of potentially conflicting thoughts to mind.
I mean, in this day and age of CGI brilliance, it’s easy to think of films with sweeping and epic visual images, pics that incorporate engulfing orchestration and emotional sequences and stage it all together in a well-rounded presentation. Movies are often like that these days.
But to imagine stage plays or musicals accomplishing the same effect, well, that’s more difficult. And when we start talking about a Bible-story stage presentation, it’s easy to be skeptical. Sight & Sound Theatres’ musical production of JESUS, however, combines some pretty amazing technology with creative stage direction and engaging characters to push back against that knee-jerk response.
Let’s start with the technology here. The show’s set includes one of the largest LED screens ever used in a theatrical production. It stands nearly 30 feet tall and 113 feet wide, and it weighs some 12 tons. That backdrop is used in visually amazing ways to interact with on-stage characters, such as when Jesus walks on the turbulent lightning-lashed waves of the Sea of Galilee.
Then there’s the enormity of the stage itself, a 300-foot wraparound affair that affords the ability to depict other incredible scenes. For example, we get mechanized, full-sized boats; enormous, moving Galilean hillsides; and several sets that reach 40 feet high. Combine those elements with a menagerie of live doves, horses, dogs, pigs, goats and camels, and you’ve got a stage production that exceeds expectations.
There are also funny moments here, energetic musical numbers and things that many people might not anticipate in a biblically based story. The show incorporates performances based on such things as a boisterous Peter singing and struggling against thieving fishermen, as well as Jesus driving the merchants from the temple courtyard. And for the most part, all of those supporting tech and musical elements help focus this presentation on Jesus himself.
“It’s the greatest rescue story of all time,” we’re told in the musical’s opening moments. And very recognizable New Testament scenes—ranging from Jesus calling His disciples to preaching on a hillside to Lazurus’ resurrection to an incredibly moving crucifixion scene—are all deftly woven together in a very approachable, almost poetically musical narration of God’s saving grace. Even those who aren’t necessarily believers will likely find this melodic interpretation a very engaging one.
Of course, there are some heated and violent moments in Jesus’ story of sacrifice and redeeming resurrection. Anyone who’s even peeked at a Bible knows that. And parents will justifiably wonder how cruel and gruesome things actually get here.
But, that’s another big plus to this stage format. When Peter lops off someone’s ear, as guards arrive to grab a praying Jesus, it’s obvious that it’s all a product of stage blood and misdirection. When the actor portraying Jesus walks out after being scourged, we can see that he wears a body suit with red marks stitched in. Those theatrics don’t cheapen or diminish the emotion of the scenes, but they do keep young and old from wincing over the brutality of them.
And when moments of anguish and loss, and interludes of celebration and joy are put to well-orchestrated music, another curious thing happens: Cries turn to full-throated song and our hearts sing along.
Yes, we Christians truly believe that Jesus’ story is nothing less that life changing. That said, it’s no simple feat to translate those miraculous happenings into a live stage event. But Sight & Sound Theatres’ JESUS is proof that sweeping, engulfing and emotional events are all at home on the stage.
In fact, the only real drawback to this show is that you’re not seeing it in its full scope and scale in a 2,000-seat auditorium.
Sight and Sound Theatres’ musical production of JESUS was filmed in front of a live audience; TBN will broadcast the performance at 9:00 pm Eastern/6:00 pm Pacific on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. It will be released on DVD and on several digital platforms on May 15.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.