The show has a play-within-a-play structure: A director named Alex (Jay Sullivan) assembles a cast and begins rehearsals for a theater production that intertwines the story of Shepard's 1998 murder in Wyoming with the Passion of Jesus Christ. Scenes and songs that represent their rehearsals alternate with the story of one of the cast members, Jim -- played by an actor named, oddly enough, Matthew Shepard -- who has been HIV-positive for 20 years, has watched all of his friends die, and suffers from an acute sense of survivor's guilt.
Under Steve Stringfellow's lackluster direction, much of Matthew Passion seems disjointed. The scenes about Jim are particularly confusing due to the actors playing multiple roles; for example, Sullivan portrays not just Alex but also Jim's roommate, Erik, and a guy named Jay, whom Jim meets on a cruise. Unfortunately, Sullivan fails to differentiate between his characters, which also include a bartender, Simon Peter, and an angel. Instead, he delivers all of his lines in the same tone of voice and with the same, sweetly understanding attitude.
The dialogue is unbelievably bad. I wish I could say it's meant to be a parody, but this entire enterprise reeks of earnestness. Hall's juxtaposition of Jesus being whipped with Matthew Shepard being beaten is woefully heavy-handed. Moreover, the chiseled bodies of the actors playing Jesus and the two thieves (James Royce Edwards, Craig Ramsay, and Timothy John Mandala) inappropriately make the crucifixion scene feel sexually fetishized.
None of the actors are able to overcome the limits of the material, although some fare better than others. Jimmi Kilduff portrays Matthew Shepard with sweet sincerity. Edwards has a few funny moments as Jesus in a gay bar. Mandala has an engaging presence in multiple roles, including Henderson and the first thief on the cross.
On the downside, Ramsay gives some of the worst line readings I've ever heard, particularly when he's playing Aaron McKinney -- and Andy Redeker, as a flamboyant chorus boy named Michael, is nearly his equal. In the role of Jim, Shepard seems as adrift as the character.
Hall's score is primarily made up of schmaltzy pop ballads. The songs are pleasant in a generic way, and the three men who serve as the chorus -- Redeker, Chad McCallon, and Jeff Applegate -- harmonize nicely. The final number, "An Angel On Your Shoulder," is the most memorable. Jim's anthem, "This Is Who I Am," is the most forgettable.
Matthew Passion has a feel-good message about learning to love yourself for who you are, but the show's dramatic arc is forced. Jim's story trades in clichés about unhappy, self-hating homosexuals, and the play's final emotional epiphany seems unearned.