Prepare the Way...Indeed
by Gary Davis
‘Prepare ye the way,’ the Baptist tells us after the prologue in Lyric Arts’ current production of Godspell.
I must admit I was not prepared. However, I was impressed. Enough so that I plan on visiting this show again later in the run to see how it changes, as all good shows do over time.
I WAS prepared for yet another production of a show that dots the seasons of high school theatres across the country and perhaps around the world. I WAS prepared for young actors and lots of energy (which was delivered). I WAS prepared for the standard school playground set (which was not).
What I wasn’t prepared for was a veritable 3 ring circus of humor, magic, vaudeville, choral mastery, and an OUTSTANDING ensemble of 10 actors and actresses that took this show, and its audience, by the throat and never let go from the opening modern-day Tower of Babble society attached to cellular devices to the dirge-filled removal of Jesus’ body after his crucifixion.
For those not familiar with Godspell, it is a musical born of the 1960’s counter-culture and a subsequent re-examining of the Christian religions that brought both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar to the stage in 1971. Godspell started out as creator John Michael Tebelak’s master’s thesis, but found its present form after Steven Schwartz rewrote the score.
When Godspell opened in 1971, it pre-dated the opening of Jesus Christ Superstar by several months and played to mixed reviews. Where Superstar was a BIG musical, Godspell was a simple show, based on parables mostly taken from the Book of Matthew.
Clive Barnes of the New York Times found the show “naïve and platitudinous”, while Tony Mastroianni in the Cleveland Press had this to say: “It is a very loving show and while it sometimes exhibits evangelist fervor it is never in anger. This is not a message of anger, but of love.”
Many will look at Godspell and agree with Mr. Barnes, asking why should we produce this musical now? Others, including director Robert Neu and composer Steven Schwartz, place the message of Godspell right here and right now. Schwartz put it this way: “there seems to be an increasing inability to come to any national consensus about anything. Godspell, at its heart, is about the formation of a community out of disparate people” through observance of some simple rules embodied in Biblical parables as seen through a very interesting lens…
While the individuals in the show are all given moments to shine, it is the ensemble that drives this production to excellence. Only one number, “Beautiful City” is a true solo, sung simply, effectively, and with minimal staging by Colin Hutchins (Jesus).
I don’t want to describe the show in a blow-by-blow manner, but rather give you a taste of what you would miss if you don’t see it. The fact is, this show is all about the team. I hope the cast will forgive me, but I feel to single out any of them would be to slight an excellent performance by each of the others. Believe, me there are no weak links to the chain here. Kudos, by the way, to Scenic Designer Kirby Moore, for not having that chain link fence.
First, it is obvious from the beginning that this cast loves working together. The interactions are honest and they play to each other and the audience with apparent ease.
Second, the staging is entertaining. Director Neu has found all of the humor he could to bring the parables to life and added some entertaining touches, such as in the baptism of the disciples. I was also pleasantly surprised by the use of footlights (yes, footlights), in “All for the Best”, a vaudeville number, led by Colin and Charles Goitia (John/Judas).
The other numbers, while having featured soloists, all are made much more effective by the ensemble, both physically and musically. Musical Director Mary Cay Stone and her assistant Ben Schrade have delivered a feast for the ears full of intricate harmonies and playful syncopations.
Choreographer Penelope Freeh and assistant Molly Jo Hall have sculpted a combination of production number dances and organic movement that complement the music seamlessly. A couple of numbers that stand out are the use of unexpected props in “We Beseech Thee” and the use of set pieces in “Bless the Lord”.
Which brings us to the set. When I entered the theatre, I was taken aback by the concrete-ness of the set. As admonished by director Neu in his program notes, I kept an open mind and was rewarded for doing so, as the set turned out to be extremely flexible and utilitarian in supporting the music and action. It helped make the technical elements of this show as seamlessly joined as the actors and musicians performing it.
So, is there a place for a 40 year old, counter culture musical telling a story more than 2,000 years old in today’s theatre? When it is done this well, the answer is a resounding yes.
Gary Davis is a local actor/director who is a big fan of theater.