Watertown parishioners bring 'Resurrection' to life for 27th year

WATERTOWN -- "Alright, we have 20 minutes to prayer!" John Madden announced in the church hall of St. Patrick Parish in Watertown on March 24, Palm Sunday. "Twenty minutes to prayer!"

All around Madden, over 40 actors, parishioners of St. Patrick's as well as other Catholic parishes and Christian churches in the area, were getting out of their street clothes and hurriedly donning biblical robes, sandals, and headscarves. They are the St. Patrick's Family Players, and they were preparing to perform "Resurrection," a music drama by the English composer Bryan Jeffery Leech, for the 27th consecutive Easter season.

As producer, Madden is responsible for organizing every performance, all behind-the-scenes logistics, and the St. Patrick's Family Players Planning Committee. (It's not a steering committee, he explained, "because God steers us.")

"I think it's brought me closer to God, closer to my faith," Madden told The Pilot. "But it's also brought me in close contact with a great group of people who believe in God."

"Resurrection" tells the story of Christ's passion and resurrection through the eyes of St. Peter. On the eve of his martyrdom, St. Peter reflects, through song, on his denial of Christ, and Christ's ultimate forgiveness of him. The music itself is old-school Broadway, with catchy melodies, earnestly heartfelt lyrics, and rousing production numbers.

Madden called "Resurrection" "a more contemporary take" on the passion story, similar to musicals like "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" but with "less rock 'n' roll." In fact, Madden said, people have told him that "Resurrection" is better than "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Albert Feetham has played St. Peter every year since 1998. He estimated that March 24 marked his 155th performance. Feetham has been a cantor at St. Patrick's for almost 27 years, but never acted on stage until "Resurrection."

"I've always wanted to give it a shot," he told The Pilot after the show. "The subject matter is near and dear to my heart."

For Feetham, the 70-minute performance was "a slow day." Most Sundays find him traveling to multiple churches to sing during Mass.

Prior to each performance, he prays that St. Peter will "take over" his body.

"It's not me," he said. "He's working through me, so that's how I do it every time. Just hoping I can bring out that message and make the experience real for people, so they can understand that this was not just a story. It was an actual happening."

Christ himself only has two lines in the show, and never appears on stage.

"It was just decided many moons ago, 26 years ago, that it was better to have Jesus's voice," Madden said. "And it's Peter's story. St. Peter's story about Jesus and his forgiveness."

It's Madden who sings Christ's two lines.

"It's an honor," he said. "It's humbling. I look at it and I always do it as I'm just portraying his voice, and not portraying him. That'd be a longshot."

The servant girl who challenges St. Peter's denial also gets a musical number. Anonymous in the Gospels, in "Resurrection," she is known as "Denial Girl" and sings an angry duet with St. Peter. Jane Corrigan has played the part in all but two performances of "Resurrection." She is used to being in musical theater ensembles but has a much different response to playing such a spiritual role.

"I get so emotional because I sort of feel like I become her," she told The Pilot. "It just takes me over emotionally, and it just gets deeper and deeper every year because I have a bigger understanding of what's going on throughout the whole show."

The St. Patrick's Family Players was founded in 1997 to perform "Resurrection" in honor of the parish's 150th anniversary. It was supposed to be a one-time performance, but the response was so great that the show became an Easter tradition, performed in churches throughout New England. For the first performances, the backing tracks of "Resurrection" were on a cassette tape.

"We were all just trying to make it work," Jean-Alfred Chavier, who directs the show and portrays St. Andrew, told The Pilot. "And it did, you know, through the grace of God. We really felt that it was a ministry more than anything else, but over the years, we've really refined a lot in terms of the sound, the lights. The direction of it all has really come together in a way that nobody could have predicted 25 years ago."

As the director, he knows that the audience has probably already heard the Easter story "more times than they can remember." He wants to make it feel tangible to them.

"Can we at least get people to understand what it might have felt like to be somebody who was in the crowd?" he said. "And it's a totally different perspective, things that people don't get when they're just praying or just in church or just listening to music."

Over the years, the St. Patrick's Family Players have performed "Resurrection" in Washington D.C., California (including a performance for the composer), Ireland, and Italy. Prior to the players' trip to Italy, they raised $8,000 to rent a sound system for their performance. Two weeks before they were scheduled to leave, they received a letter from Italy. The performance had been canceled. Then, one of the players mentioned their neighbor whose uncle lived in Ciampino, a city outside of Rome. The players were able to perform at a church there, where only one person spoke English and translated throughout. The church's pastor later said that eight years prior, he briefly died during surgery and had a vision of such a performance taking place in his church. After the show, a two-year-old girl came up to Corrigan and put her arms up to her, as if she was a living saint.

"I just melted right there," Corrigan said. "It was such a beautiful share, in another country, in a place we weren't even supposed to be at, and it was so well-received. We never know why we end up doing things, but sometimes God has his own plan in this."

One year, the players performed "Resurrection" for women incarcerated at MCI Framingham. Chavier said that the inmates strongly related to the show's message of forgiveness.

"That's one of the most incredible experiences," he said, "because the lights are up, and we can see the faces of everybody who's out there. And they can see our faces, and it's much more intimate to watch them hear and feel the story with it."

Chavier sees generations of families, grandparents, and grandchildren, "of all talent levels and from all walks of life," performing in the show together. All of them relate to the same telling of the same story. He has been involved with "Resurrection" since he was in high school. Katie Garside, a member of the ensemble and Denial Girl's understudy, has been performing in the show since she was seven years old. Now 22, she has come of age with "Resurrection" and has gained deeper insight into the show's meaning.

"I've been trying to put it into words, and I really can't," she told The Pilot. "These people, I've grown up with them. They've grown up with me. We've been able to endure obstacles together because of the show and the message that we tell every year. I know it's gotten me through some difficult times."

When her grandmother died, she kept quoting one of St. Peter's lyrics to herself: "I can face this terrible tomorrow/For his love has banished all my fears."

Eventually, the "20 minutes to prayer" were up. Madden gathered the cast in a circle, and they prayed together before the show. Madden began his prayer with: "Dear God, here we are again."

Some cast members offered prayers for family and friends, as well as the handful of "newbies" in the cast for the first time this year. Madden asked the actors to pull up their leggings, remove their watches, and leave behind their cell phones for the sake of biblical accuracy. He also warned them that, in their robes, the sanctuary would be quite chilly. With that, it was showtime. Madden high-fived kids as they went up the stairs.

"Someone in the audience needs to hear what God has called us to tell them," Garside said, "and so that is the meaning that it gives, each new day. This show's never gotten old."