Reviewed: Savior of the World

180px-sotwSavior of the World is a theatrical production by the LDS Church that premiered in November 2000 in the church’s Conference Center in Salt Lake City, and has since been performed in other locations.  I saw it for the first time last night in Henderson, Nevada. 

The first thing to know about Savior of the World is that it’s not really about the Savior, in the sense that a traditional nativity or passion play focuses on His life.  Jesus only shows up a few times in the play, and when He does it’s only as a monolithic dispenser of quotations–His presence in the play is completely devoid of personality.  The intent is clear:  to focus on the lives and needs of those others who played supporting roles in His ministry. 

One is reminded of Ben-Hur, where Jesus Christ’s few “cameo appearances” contained no dialogue and were shot only from behind.  Savior of the World strives for a similar degree of reverence–the actor portraying Christ doesn’t even come out for the curtain call. 

As Christ is not the protagonist of this play, several other scriptural characters are fleshed out to share their perspective on the holy events around them.  This rounding of flat scriptural characters is typical of a lot of religious literature and art these days, and it often works well; it’s effective here, too.  It may not stretch the imagination to see Joseph distraught over his betrothed wife’s pregnancy, but the interaction of Mary and Elisabeth, or the extended musing of the two disciples who saw Christ on the road to Emmaus, adds a genuinely thoughtful perspective. 

(I only wish that the attempts to make these miraculous events relatable to us didn’t so often come across as ham-fisted, or overly-determined to stress the nature of LDS doctrine, what with the frequent references to covenants with the house of Israel, for example–it felt out of place.)

Though the first act dramatizes the nativity and the second act is about the Resurrection, the actual life of Christ is left out entirely.  This is an interesting approach: skipping over the story as it’s almost always been told in order to show how it impacted the lives of those involved.

The major characters include (in the first act) Elisabeth and Zacharias, Joseph and Mary, and the shepherds, and (in the second act) Mary Magdalene, Peter, and especially Thomas.  This last is the most poignant in the play.  Though each of these characters gets their turn on stage to wrestle with doubt and faith, with each finding the struggle to be faithful rewarded, Thomas is both the best written and acted role.  (In this, Latter-day Saints may see a parallel with a fairly recent church video called Finding Faith in Christ; really, the similarities in these two productions make me wonder if their development may have been related.) 

Thomas also gets the best song in the play.  Savior of the World is a musical, and where the narrative originality of the play is refreshing, much of the music, sadly, is not.  Most of the songs come off as toneless, watery warblings, leaving the performers with little to do but talk loudly and melodically.  Most of the songs, however, are kept to within a minute or two–the writers and composers here may have realized that trying to be Rodgers and Hammerstein was neither realistic nor appropriate.  Still, it would have been nice to have more numbers that amounted to more than a character or two briefly stating their feelings in a vaguely tonal manner, as they stroll lethargically across the stage. 

Actually, the best musical item in the play is the use of hymns.  The production I saw was accompanied by an orchestra, and at several points the score is a gentle yet rich infusion of a standard hymn, “I Stand All Amazed” or “He Is Risen,” say.  Too rarely we hear these songs as they can be played, as professional, artistic masterpieces.  In fact, the closing number during last night’s performance was “Jesus, Once of Humble Birth,” sung by most of the company, and which elevated a terrific song from the slough of our usual experience with it–a monotonous dirge during sacrament meeting–to an exalted realm where its true majesty could shine. 

Is it worth seeing?  Yes.  But don’t expect a huge rush of the Spirit just because you’re there.  As a theatrical production, it’s competent and enjoyable, often thought-provoking, and sometimes even impressive, but it never really rises above the level of the volunteer, community theater production that it is.  If you see it, see it to enjoy it for what it is–a sincere expression of faith with some aesthetic merit and much worthwhile content–but not for what it isn’t and can’t be–a great artistic or profoundly inspiring spiritual achievement. 

Frankly, the best part of last night’s show was a little angel.  The set had a small balcony set back from the action, where “angels” watched throughout the show.  At one point, an elementary aged girl in white robes got down and peeked through an arch on that balcony, and contentedly rested her head on one hand and just watched the show for a while.  She was pleasantly enrapt with the story in front of her, without regard for critical values.  Just the simple faith of a child.  For watching this show, a good example for us all.

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