A rock musical with a biblical theme? It’s been done, of course. But The 12, a world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre, takes a very different approach from that of Jesus Christ Superstar or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It explores the emotional reactions of the disciples who have gathered after the crucifixion, in the same room where only a day before they shared the Passover seder with the man they called Teacher.
Robert Schenkkan, whose play about LBJ, All the Way, will be coming to the Denver Center next year, wrote the script. “We have tried very seriously to get at this fundamental question of belief and commitment to something which cannot ultimately be proved in rational, scientific terms,” he told the Center’s John Moore, adding that composer Neil Berg has said his score “is really an open love letter to classic rock and roll.” I’d like to have heard the conversations between these artists during the seven years they spent putting the work together, because it seems to me that while rock may indeed be a revolutionary medium, there’s a tension between the joyous abandon we expect from rock concerts and the profound and highly personal relationship that people have with religion. For several years, musical theater has been changing as a genre — from light entertainment to sophisticated art to a raucous, propulsive vehicle for serious topics: madness (Next to Normal); teenage sexuality, confusion and suicide (Spring Awakening). Trembling on the edge of the ineffable, The 12 wants to take you even further.
Most of us vaguely know the disciples’ stories. We know that Judas betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver, though by the opening of The 12, Judas is dead, and Simon, the hot-headed zealot revolutionary, claims to have killed him. We know Peter denied Christ three times and was tormented by guilt afterward. We remember Doubting Thomas — here a peevish fellow called Tom — who said he’d believe in the resurrection only if he could place his fingers in Jesus’s wounds. But I hadn’t thought of them as real people who only a few days earlier had entered Jerusalem in triumph and were now in mortal danger and suffering a three-day spiritual death of their own.
Mary Magdalene erupts into the room. The men despise her as a woman and a prostitute (except for Jimmy, who sings her a standard-issue love song in a plot twist that feels both irrelevant and intrusive. Much more interesting is the scholarly speculation about Mary Magdalene’s actual relationship with Jesus, which is never touched on here). Mary shares none of the disciples’ uncertainty. She is still strong in her faith. And Teacher’s Mother makes a grief-stricken entrance and galvanizes the men with her passionate song “Rain.”
The production, directed by Richard Seyd, is top-notch: the elegantly simple lines of the set; costumes that range from a suit to blue jeans to vaguely Middle Eastern-looking garments and together convey an impression of timelessness; a fine group of musicians; lighting that’s sometimes subtle, sometimes pure rock concert. The music adds energy and emotion. The cast is so strong that it’s hard to single out anyone for particular praise, but Tony Vincent is an interestingly insinuating Tom and Colin Hanlon an inspirational Pete. Christina Sajous is so filled with power and passion as Mary that when she sings “Where were all of you when he hung there and died?” that she evokes all the cruelty and suffering in the world — including the ugly history of lynching in this country and the murder of young black men by today’s police.
Unfortunately, The 12 doesn’t transcend one of the most prevalent and formulaic musical-theater conventions: The disciples become aware of the horrors awaiting them outside the sheltering room, and we know immediately that they’ll toss off their fears within minutes, Mary will urge them to be courageous, the music will swell, they’ll start singing an upbeat, inspirational song (“Rise Up,” which is actually a pretty good one), the audience will clap in rhythm, and the men will fling open the door. Sure enough, that’s what happens. And then we all leave feeling happy and affirmed. Because it has been a really terrific evening, and why spoil it by brooding about death, resurrection, faith and mortal fear?
The 12, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 26, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.