THE LAST SUPPER: Jesus and his disciples sharing their final meal together before the crucifixion. FPCNLR Media

I haven’t been a religious person for close to 15 years now, but no amount of agnosticism could stop me from going to “I AM,” a 10-performance Easter production boasting “a cast of 500, a 50-voice choir, live musicians, animals, and special effects,” according to the slick flier I received in the mail.

Blame it on divine intervention or an impressive marketing campaign, but once I learned that the First Pentecostal Church in North Little Rock — that colossal, many-columned set of buildings that sort of looks like it’s on its own island beside Interstate 40 — was promoting a show where Jesus would literally soar above the raised hands of his followers, I knew I had to check it out. 

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Despite the show’s promised magnitude, I had my doubts about whether it’d be well-attended, especially on opening night, a full nine days before Easter. Boy, was I wrong. The shockingly tall and ornate sanctuary — outfitted with an impressive stone backdrop and an enormous digital screen — was stuffed to the gills with people eager to spend their Friday evening in church.

Zach Ward, the church’s director of communications, said each performance is being capped at 2,000, and they’re all either sold out or approaching it. In other words, by Sunday, roughly 20,000 people will have paid somewhere between $10-$50 (plus a service fee) to pass through the hallowed and architecturally exorbitant walls of First Pentecostal for a dramatic and high-budget telling of Jesus’ rise and fall (and rise again). 

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The production, which has been performed in various forms at First Pentecostal since 2014, is based on the Gospel of John, and opens with John himself sitting down to record his testimony as one of Jesus’ disciples.

Quickly, though, we’re shot further into the past, where a group of people are mourning the death of a man named Lazarus. This is where we first meet Jesus (Logan Ellis), who I was delighted to discover was being played by a decidedly shorter and more average-looking man than the hunky portrayals I’ve become accustomed to. He seemed sweet and accessible. One of my colleagues who was also in attendance referred to him as “snuggle-sized.” 

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GIDDYUP: Logan Ellis, one of two actors playing Jesus during 2024’s “I AM” performances, riding a donkey through the pews.

His everymanness, however, doesn’t last for long. With the mourners a bit peeved that Jesus wasn’t around to save their friend before his death, Jesus tosses off a miracle like it’s nothing. “Lazarus, come forth,” he says, and Lazarus instantly pops out of the tomb amid sophisticated light and smoke as if he’s a jack-in-the-box, the band springing into action with a ripping guitar solo. “Hell yeah,” I instinctually shouted, the music too loud for anyone to hear my blasphemous slip of the tongue. 

From there, the narrative alternates between Jesus continuing to impress the masses with his supernatural powers and the religious elite becoming increasingly more threatened until a plan hatches to take him down. It’s a story that most people know fairly well, but what you’re less familiar with is the hilariously electrifying and epic ways in which that story can be told on stage, if only you’ve got the resources and willpower to do so. 

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FPCNLR Media
FLYING HIGH: The best method for convincing the audience that Jesus has really ascended into heaven? Hoisting him high until he disappears into the rafters, obviously.

How to persuasively depict Jesus kicking out the merchants and money changers from the temple in Jerusalem? By rigging up a table to fall in slow motion when he tosses it over, of course.

The most thrilling form for Jesus to take when he first returns after his crucifixion? A hologram, duh.

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The best method for convincing the audience that Jesus has really ascended into heaven? Hoisting him high until he disappears into the rafters, obviously.

Real camels, donkeys, horses, sheep and chickens? You betcha. And what kind of music should be soundtracking all of this? ‘70s- and ‘80s-influenced rock ballads and a score recorded by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, naturally. It was both outlandish and riveting. 

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Easily the most intense part of the show is the crucifixion, which I figured would probably be glossed over because, well, it’s horrific. Wrong again. For what felt like ages but was probably about five to 10 minutes, an extremely bloody Jesus hobbles through seemingly every aisle in the church, straining miserably under the weight of the sizable cross he’s carrying. To make things even more gratuitous, hundreds of cast members follow him around, either weeping at his suffering or passionately yelling, “Crucify him!” And this is all before they stand the cross upright on stage for another few minutes of agonizing pain. 

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GRUESOME: “I AM” features an extended depiction of the crucifixion.

It was a lot to endure for someone who’s not compelled by the symbolism. But it’s arguably worth it for an otherwise thrilling production that’s not nearly as preachy as you might think, as long as you can swallow the irony of walking into the lobby to find commemorative merch for a show that hinges on a radical who rallied against the commercialization of the church.

Performances of “I AM” run through Sunday, April 1. Find tickets here.

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