God seldom draws more minivans than Ikea around these parts. But from Palm Sunday through the celebration of the Resurrection, the parking lot of Queensway Cathedral, just west of Kipling, holds more pilgrims than the hopping Swedish-meatball-and-wall-unit joint across the street. The faithful are gathering to see the biggest knees-up spiritual experience in town.
The Toronto Passion Play, now in its 13th spring, brings together a cast and crew of 250 for a vigorous, musical retelling of the Christ story, from beginning to endless, complete with a live donkey bearing a Mary heavy with child, fireworks (a rocket shoots from the back of the cathedral to draw attention to the empty tomb), and Jesus flying upward on a cable through a haze of dry ice. There is a hearty healing scene and a Fosse-style big dance number featuring good and bad angels.
This is not your typical church pageant, as the full house of 3,300 for each of seven performances will attest to. Some years have seen things get ugly when the free show sells out.
The draw is such, says play co-ordinator Linda Pritchard, "that we've had skirmishes break out in the past. When people wait for hours to get in, then find out we're full, they go wild.
"One year the producer was almost torn to shreds."
"Buses come from Buffalo," Ms. Pritchard says, beaming with pride, "loads of people come down from Woodbridge, we're really popular with Catholics, from Kitchener, from London, from Belleville."
In stark contrast to the other big Easter gathering in town (the tortured Good Friday procession of the cross in Little Italy), the Toronto Passion Play is pretty upbeat, focused on the happy ending.
Queensway Cathedral is a Pentecostal ministry (lots of joyful rafter-rattling, thank you Jesuses, singing and clapping). The church has a vibrant congregation of about 1,800 passionate believers, drawn from all over the GTA. The congregation (and thus the cast of the play) is a perfect microcosm of this city, with young and old and many races and interests represented: Caribbean Pentecostals, Filipino Pentecostals, Irish Pentecostals, Chinese Pentecostals, plus a sizable deaf contingent. Talk about your blind casting: This is better than a Benetton ad.
All the high spirits and popularity make the ministry something of a destination, located as it is near the 400 highways, just off the Gardiner. "No one lives around here, we don't have neighbours walking to church. Everyone drives -- many from very far away," says the show's producer, Stephen Hitchcock, one of eight, count 'em, pastors at the massive church.
"We had the big facility," says Helena Cleland, who has been the show's director since its inception, "so we decided to do something big inside it."
Mr. Hitchcock, who was still in his final year of high school at the Christian college next door during the play's first year, is now licensed to launch fireworks; he had to get the paper to send Jesus up to heaven in style.
At dress rehearsal last Saturday, the youngest angels were squirming in their seats until the hey-hosanna singing began and, big smiles twinkling like their halos, they started clapping along and praising their Lord. Rev. Billy Richards led a blessing for a roomful of biblically dressed characters (as in lots of simple cloth and tattered headbands and Tevas converted to gladiator sandals).
"As senior pastor, I have to leave you now to take care of the donkey," he says, giving a shout out to the guy playing Joseph: "Joseph has to walk behind that donkey, and I just fed him apples." Even in church, poop jokes are big crowd pleasers.
The disciples were hanging out backstage in a circle. They had all just failed the foot check. Because legs pale from a Canadian winter stand out when men wear dresses and sandals, they were told to apply self-tanner, but they all apparently balked.
Many of the disciples appear year after year. "We switch roles," says Don Cuff, a pastor who is playing James this year. "It's a real bonding experience."
In fact, the 12 guys on the disciple crew could not come from more different life experiences. Peter, who is played by Ilija Vasic, runs a business in Brampton. "By the end, all of us get pretty close. The last performance, there are usually a few good pranks," he says, citing wet pillows at the Last Supper and vinegar and salt on the feast grapes.
John is played by Phil Corredoura, a pilot by day. Jesus, Dominic Vitale, works at the Ministry of Health. James the Less is Donald Miller, who is also carrying the cross for the 13th year. He cites his profession as imagineer (a guy who makes what you imagine, apparently). This year there are three young disciples: Andrew, played by Daniel Bokun, attends the Etobicoke School of the Arts, as does Bartholemew, played by Thomas Curtis. Thomas is played by Shane Ricchetti, who attends the Christian school attached to the church. "It's a big commitment, and when I have lots of homework I can't get done," he says, "I have to trust God to provide."
The production costs about $50,000 to mount; organizers have found they make more money passing the plate halfway than they do when they've charged for tickets in the past.
"We cover our costs each year with the collection," Mr. Hitchcock says, and any profit goes back into the production.
Jesus is pretty excited about his moment of eternal glory. "I can't wait for the finale," Mr. Vitale says. "Apparently at curtain call, when Jesus walks back up the aisle to the stage, the kids mob him." Some even ask him to pose for pictures. "It's so heartwarming, seeing the Holy Spirit fill the room and people coming to see him and to feel him."
Jesus Christ, superstar.