Stage: Wednesday, May 17, 2006
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What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a-happenin’? Well, ‘The Singer’ is an earnest re-telling of Jesus’ story — perhaps too earnest.
The Singer
Thru May 27 at Graceworks City Church, 5008 James Av, FW. 817-924-5559.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Heaven on Their Minds

Proselytizing trumps art in Cornerstone Theatre’s biblical allegory, The Singer.

By JIMMY FOWLER

In many ways, Cornerstone Theatre’s current production, an allegorical study of the life of Jesus Christ set in a mythical medieval land, is critic-proof. The ambitions of both The Singer and Cornerstone Theatre are unabashedly evangelical: Saving souls, giving testimony, and nurturing the faith of the like-minded are clearly as important to this production as intellectual or entertainment value. This is a private terrain that no pundit can really comment on. If the actors, designers, and director-adaptor Rich Peterson feel they have successfully delivered what they would probably call “the good news of Jesus,” then they and the recipients are the best judges of that accomplishment.

If, however, they’re interested in pulling in a wider audience, ambitious to tell a story that will ensnare a ticketbuyer regardless of his or her spiritual inclinations, then it has to be said that this musical adaptation of Calvin Miller’s 30- year-old illustrated epic poem is an occasionally clumsy, generally uninspired, and — at three hours, plus one 15-minute intermission — torturously drawn-out theatrical experience.

The life, death, and teachings of Christ offer fertile, complex material for even die-hard atheists to chew on. Conversely, you don’t have to be a godless secularist to recognize that a piece of so-called “Christian entertainment” like The Singer often drives itself into deep creative ditches by focusing on the message to the detriment of the medium (characterization, plot, theme). The glaring neglect often proves embarrassing. Two influences to whom Miller’s book and this show pay oblique, haphazard tribute, C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, were both big-time Jesus freaks, but their poetic narratives relayed the sense that faith for them was an expanding, universalizing energy. It brought them closer to their humanity even as it helped them, in theory, transcend it. The Singer exemplifies the dorky cliquishness, the blinding triumphalism that mars Christian pop music, Christian fiction like the Left Behind books, and similar ghettoizing, niche-driven diversions. Watching this show felt like being trapped in a 180-minute conversation with the most earnest Southern Baptist youth minister you know.

The fact that Cornerstone Theatre is a non-professional, all-volunteer enterprise is not at issue here. Tepid though it is, The Singer stands firmly in the grand tradition of the medieval passion play, one of the foundational art forms of Western civilization, and the best of those have almost always been amateur affairs. Psychological realism and polish in the performance aren’t only non-issues, they are potential distractions. Hence, cranky Catholic Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was an anemic shadow of The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 1966 film by the very gay, very atheist, and very socialist Pier Paolo Pasolini that employed an almost entirely untrained peasant cast from Southern Italy. (The director did cast his then-boyfriend as Jesus, but that’s another story.) Pasolini knew how to frame those blank, weathered faces and isolate a pathos that no amount of thespian technique could conjure.

The cast of nearly 30 actor-singers that compose The Singer have the enthusiasm and, probably, the knowledge of the Bible to bring this version of Jesus back down to the people, where he belongs. Instead of Christ, though, we get The Singer (Tim Olson), a carpenter in the quasi-Tolkienish land of Terra who also happens to be the son of The Earthmaker (presumably God). The Earthmaker, sometimes also called The Father Spirit, has charged his son with bringing The Star Song to the people of Terra, notably The River Singer or John the Baptist (played by Joey Walter); The Friendship Seller (wink, wink), Mary Magdalene (Susanna Daves); and The Singer’s Mother (Carol Walter), the Virgin Mary. The villain is the black-bearded World-Hater (Don Caldwell), whose name doesn’t make much theological sense — Satan is supposed to be infatuated with worldly things. The World-Hater cackles fiendishly and nerve-gratingly and presides over a place of eternal suffering called The Canyon of The Damned. (Uh, hell, right?)

It should already be apparent that The Singer is one of the laziest retellings of the Jesus story out there. The changes that director Peterson has made are incidental, unenlightening, and could have seemingly been accomplished with the find/replace function in a scriptwriting program. The whole thing brings to mind The Simpsons’ recasting of Mary Poppins as Sherry Bobbins “to avoid copyright infringement.” Miller, by the way, provides pre-recorded commentary during the show’s roving black-outs that includes sentiments like “But Earthlings never seem to learn it is futile to dredge the graveyards for messiahs.”

The tooth-aching tedium of The Singer is a shame, because Cornerstone Theatre’s designers have a junk-drawer aesthetic going on that’s really charming — Christmas tree lights strung around as stars, tv screens showing scenes of outer space during the Genesis parts, billowing smoke, and a disco ball that kicks in every time The Star Song is sung. Every long moment of this three-hour exercise oozes sincerity, commitment, and, yes, passion. So how about an authentic Passion Play from Cornerstone, or re-enactments of some of the great bloody, bizarro Old Testament tales? The theater’s got the resources and the inspiration to pull it off. Soul-saving is a well-intentioned enterprise, but please make sure the script you’re trying to do it with is worth rescuing from the wastebasket. l


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