Passion Play

This high school band is marching to the beat of a very different drummer -- Mel Gibson's 'Christ.'

October 02, 2004|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

She is smiling too much, a Broadway smile. But it's just rehearsal - it's not the real crucifixion.

For now, 16-year-old Jodi Wenger can kid around as two high school classmates hoist her off her feet and onto a 2-by-4 crucifix stand-in. What's important at this stage is not to be spun into the bass drums or get clipped by the Flag Guard. She'll lose the smile for the show, but you don't want to lose a tooth.

It's very serious business representing Christ from that movie of last year called The Passion of the Christ. And she's a girl Christ! Jodi is also the band director's daughter, wouldn't you know.

"We're not going to have her in a loin cloth. We're not going to be stupid about this," says Joanne Wenger, the band director.

With Jodi & Co., the Golden Eagles' novel production of "The Passion" debuts today at a state band competition. The reigning state champs in their division, the Annapolis Area Christian School's marching band could well be the first group in the country to tackle Mel Gibson's blockbuster movie and soundtrack.

Music, what music? For the multitudes that saw The Passion of the Christ, the soundtrack seemed inaudible given the searing visual elements. But there is much music - the official movie soundtrack was certified gold, then came a CD of "Inspired by" songs and coming to a performing arts theater near you, the "Music From and Inspired by The Passion of The Christ Tour." Would it be that much of a leap of faith for a high school marching band to also be inspired by The Passion?

But then, there's that whole scourging thing. Do we really want to ask high school kids to re-create Gibson's controversial re-creation of Christ's last miserable hours on this earth before the crucifixion? How, for example, would a flute section come into play? A snare drummer's pinwheel? This isn't exactly The Music Man.

Somehow, intense weeping doesn't seem like the kind of audience reaction your typical marching band is going for.

"We are not going to focus on the death," says Mike Shaner, the assistant band director for the Golden Eagles. "Although the movie is gruesome, the music doesn't come off that way."

After three months of practice, the Golden Eagles will present their 8-minute routine today at a competition at Broadneck High School. Nearly a dozen performances will follow, at band competitions against other Maryland and Pennsylvania high schools.

"I've been trying to get hold of Mel Gibson and tell him we're doing this," Shaner says. They would like to send Gibson tickets to the performance.

No word from Mr. Gibson. One could imagine that the director would not be surprised to discover that his creation has sprouted high school wings. Adapted from John Debney's movie soundtrack, the school's production features a Flag Guard dressed as Palestinian women (beige tunics, brown sashes, "a Luke Skywalker look" one drill instructor noted before issuing a deft retraction), a drum line portraying Roman soldiers, and a main character with strong enough arms to spin to her figurative death without falling off a symbolic crucifix.

This takes practice, folks.

"It's very intimidating," says Jodi Wenger, 16. She realizes her scene is the emotional highlight. "I'm most nervous about how well it's going to go over with people."

And, yes, she knows she has to stop smiling. It's just you're always told to keep a smile on your face when performing, she says. But this show is a bit different.

On a scaffold assembled before each practice, Mike Shaner and band director Joanne Wenger stand, look and shout. Below them, the kids march on a football-like field; the school in Odenton doesn't have a football team. Shaner does most of the barking - the 31-year-old Long Islander is a drill sergeant in shorts and a Ginger Ale T-shirt. He's been with the school about 10 years, hired just August through November, a hired band gun. If you crossed Joey from Friends with the Cowboys' Bill Parcels, you get the image.

If provoked, Shaner will nearly leap off the scaffold and address, in the case of yesterday's dress rehearsal, the drum line, which apparently was not straight enough. "Look at this!" he hollered, arms waving. "It looks like Bush and Cheney - crooked!" It was the line of the week.

This was his idea, after all.

Last December, Shaner proposed that the school's 80-member marching band attempt The Passion. He saw the movie twice to really hear what he calls the "sweet and mournful" music. Wenger also fell in love with the music, which reminded her of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy score. After securing the rights to perform Gibson's music, the band's brass - namely music arranger Larry Cauley - crafted a production fit for a Christian high school that happens to have a senior drum major named Christian.

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