“The music tells the story – the story changes lives!’

Review by David Kiley
When one is working with the Gospels of the New Testament, it is an easy choice to stick close to the source material. After all, it is the “greatest story ever told.” “The Cross and the Light” Concert Experience, a scaled-down version of the familiar big musical that has performed previously in the Michigan and is preparing for an international tour, is a well-produced and performed faith experience that certainly lifts a lot of spirits.
Like the full musical, “The Cross and the Light” Concert and Media Experience makes innovative use of light, using high-powered projectors to create images 150-feet wide and 30-feet high.
The seven-performer production easily moves from venue to venue, mostly churches. Music is pre-recorded, but quite good, as are the actor-vocalists.
The cast, with several notable performers, brings theatrical and vocal precision. This is no church basement play. Kenny Watson as Jesus, combines both the right physical look and huge belting pipes that the role calls for. Others in the ensemble include: Tim Bowman Jr., who is a recording artist with a Lifestyle Music/Capitol CMG album coming out later this year as Thomas, High Priest and a soldier; Ashley Rozanski as Mary Magdalene; Beth Lackey (honorable mention 2014 Wilde Award for Maria in Arbor Opera Theatre’s The Sound of Music) as Mary; Bradley Ellison as Judas, Pontius Pilate.
The songs are original, written for the show. The actors, dressed in black, follow the script of the passion play fairly closely. Unlike shows like Godspell or Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, there is no analogous storytelling, metaphors, nuance of the story really. It is an interesting hybrid of modern musical theater performers performing modern-style songs, but sticking as close to the original material as skin to bone.
Whereas Godspell or Joseph have proven secular appeal, while also being performed often in churches and parochial schools, The Cross and The Light feels very rooted, by design by its writers and producers, in evangelizing the Good News of the gospels in a big, theatrical way. 
The show is conceived, written and produced by Kelly Nieto, former Miss Michigan and a runner-up Miss America. The production, which actually gets performed in three versions—the 65-80 cast-member full costumed musical, this concert version and a further cut-down version called The Journey—is clearly, and literally, a passion project for the former beauty queen. The website outlines her own faith journey and how she became inspired to create the show(s).
The performances and multi-media aspects of the show are mighty impressive, especially the ability to make all the production values so portable. Any church, school or venue who is interested in hosting the show can go to the website where there are detailed explanations on how to have it produced at a church, school or theater, costs, as well as how to promote it and pay for it. It is quite a tidy and extremely well organized enterprise. At the start of the performance that I saw, Kelly Nieto mentioned how happy the hosting pastor was that “it was all paid for.”
“The Cross and the Light” is powerful evangelism and theater combined into a unique faith experience.


The Cross and The Light
April 23-25, 2015: St. Patrick of White Lake, White Lake Township
April 30-May 2, 2015: Our Lady Star of the Sea, Grosse Pointe Woods
May 7-9, 2015: St. Frances Cabrini, Allen Park
May 14-16, 2015: St. Isidore, Macomb
A Passion Play for our Times 
April 11, 2014 John Quinn

Beginning in the 17th century, the town of Oberammergau, Bavaria has presented a play based on the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth, as recounted in the New Testament. It’s an endeavor of epic proportions, with a cast of hundreds. It will next be performed in 2020. Other than its big scope and common subject matter, the German production differs from Nieto Productions’ “The Cross and the Light,” which returns Friday to Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. Oberammergau is a pageant; stiff and ritualistic. “The Cross and the Light” is strongly grounded in the very American traditions of musical theater. While remaining reverential to the source material, the creators were not afraid to retell “the greatest story ever told” in contemporary terms.

“The Cross and the Light” follows the Gospels’ narratives from the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, commemorated as Palm Sunday, to the disciples’ first venture in evangelization, known now as Pentecost. The central character is the same, but the emphasis driving the narrative is not the same as in other musicals drawn from the same source – Jesus as teacher (“Godspell”) or Judas as Grecian-style tragic hero (“Jesus Christ Superstar”). This Jesus is a leader, and how that leadership influences his followers is the main theme. In keeping with that idea, a big part of the narrative is carried by the apostles Peter and Thomas. Played here by singers of extraordinarily gifted tenors – Joshua Gronlund as Peter and Tim Bowman, Jr. as Thomas – their motivations take on an unexpected fervor.


Church-based theater became a common instructional device in medieval Christianity, and many separate works eventually were combined into the Passion plays. “The Cross and the Light” – like “Superstar” – integrates the Magdalene plays, and Ashley Rozanski’s sweet soprano can turn to rasping sorrow in a heartbeat. But here we also find elements of the (other) Mary plays, Mary the Mother of Jesus. Beth Lackey brings her character out from behind the veil; her rendition of the lamentations at the cross is beautiful.

But there’s no story without the strong central character, and Kenny Watson succeeds on all fronts. His Jesus is approachable, warm and gentle. Watson, like all the principals in this production, possesses a killer voice. The vocal arrangements are challenging, and it is remarkable to hear such uniform quality.

“The Cross and the Light” is the creation of Kelly Nieto, who serves as executive producer. Directorial responsibilities for herding this huge cast fall to Dominique Lowell and Brian LeDuc, who also serves as musical director. For this year’s staging, six new songs arranged by Nashville artist John Hinchey have been added to the score. Patrons of previous productions are in for a much more integrated experience.

Is “The Cross and the Light” a musical for everybody? Although the musical numbers can stand on their own, the production is suitably Christocentric and is most enjoyable if one can say, “I’m a believer!”