Of all the musicals I have been in, Godspell is my favorite. Not because I’m a zealot, or because I enjoyed calling a cast member Jesus, or because studying for the Introduction to Christian Theology class required by my Catholic university got easier when I started singing along to the Gospel According to St. Matthew. It’s simple: Godspell allows the cast and the director to change the script. First produced in 1971 by then-21-year-old Carnegie Mellon student John-Michael Tebelak, Godspell, like the Ten Commandments, is made to be broken. Tebelak (along with composer Stephen Schwartz) provided an outline for the stories and the dialogue, but all of the stage business, dialogue, and audience interaction can be improvised, infused with new energy, or shrunk to fit each audience’s personality. Although it’s indisputably entertaining to watch Jolly Musicals’ Godspell (with its “Broadway Laden Cast”), it’s more entertaining to watch the audience—children and adults—get caught up in scripture as performed by what could (and should) be the cast of Saturday Night Live.
This particular musical version of the Gospel According to St. Matthew starts on the street: Shrouded by ratty coats and hats, some of the positively gorgeous cast members are rolled up, fetus-style, on the Warner Theatre’s front steps, pretending to be homeless people. When I attended, knowing exactly who they were (the thick stage makeup was my first clue), I grabbed my date and quickly ran to Will Call, driven by the ultimate audience phobia: being confronted by the actors. Safely inside, lights down, we heard moaning sounds fairly typical of what most nonhomeless people believe to be noises that homeless people make. By the time the eight faux-homeless made their way to the stage, accompanied by the nails-on-chalkboard tones of body mikes being jostled, the audience was slightly confused, and, I imagine, the children were somewhat scared.
On the stage, the actors ramble around, schizophrenically talking to each other and themselves, launching into an imaginative, though vocally garbled, rendition of “Tower of Babble,” a musical encyclopedia of the great Western philosophers—Socrates, Buckminster Fuller, Nietzsche. Director-choreographer Stephen DeAngelis sets the tone with this first number for the pattern that continues for the rest of the show: brilliant voices and inventive blocking backed by sometimes foggy acting and a pace that—unlike that of most musicals—suffers when it hits full tilt.
After the Tower of Babble collapses, the homeless are cured of their insanity and their homelessness by being enlightened by a water-soaked, loofah-toting John the Baptist, played the night I saw the show by understudy Brandon Wilson Singleton. The baptism-by-loofah number is one of the show’s most famous: “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” a beautifully vocalized crowd-pleaser that, to my dismay, is accompanied by the requisite running-into-the-audience-clapping gimmick. Then—and this is good—a trash bag rolls out from the rear of the fenced-in stage, only to birth Jesus (Jason Paige), wearing nothing but red boxers patterned with yellow suns and moons, and fluorescent-orange socks, looking strangely like Kevin Smith’s younger brother. Now, this particular Jesus is not exactly the lithe guy you’re familiar with from statuettes and crucifixes. He has a beer gut. Possessing only a modicum of body hair, he is not unpleasant to view in a half-naked state; however, I was relieved when he came back on stage during “Save the People” wearing pride-flag-patterned cargo pants and a long-sleeved blue T-shirt like Superman’s, except it’s emblazoned with some Jesus-oriented hieroglyphs. Joining him are cast members wearing C. David Russell’s well-conceived Rent-via-Ringling Bros. costumes in every color of the rainbow, who mimic Jesus by applying the clown makeup famous since Godspell’s original production. So the former homeless people now look like late-’80s Limelight club kids. The song ends, and everyone has been saved.
The cast tackles every acting style, from Shakespeare to minstrelsy to pantomime to Jimmy Swaggart, providing sound effects and enough contemporary and local (and often randy) references to make even an atheist teenager chuckle. Though some of the parables are
dumbed down for the lowest common denominator of shared humor, the cast is at its best when improvising, name-dropping, alluding to such bits of local lore as “Surrender Dorothy,” plugging John Harvard’s, imitating Regis on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and barfing up the now-cliched waaazzzuuup?
As Jesus, Paige comforts the audience with his unprepossessing poise. He’s touted in the program as having sung everything from Aerosmith and Oleta Adams songs to Mountain Dew’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” parody and the Pokemon theme song, so I expected that Paige’s voice would be beautiful. And it is, despite some vaguely ‘N Sync-ronized moments. But his acting lacks the enthusiasm and emotional connection to his disciples that the part requires. As Debra Wiseman sings to Paige in “Day by Day,” the emotion pouring out of her eyes can be seen and felt, but he doesn’t return it. Paige more than makes up for his dispassion with magic tricks, balloon animals, Paula Cole-at-the-1998-Grammys-style beatbox, and the earnest way he asks one cast member, “Why you gotta trip like that?”—minutes later recovering with a respectable Godfather imitation.
From her rendition of “Learn Your Lessons Well,” sung on Jesus’ last night on Earth, tiny powerhouse Jennifer Cody, looking like Li’l Bo Peep, shines as a triple-threat actor-singer-dancer. Separated at birth from SNL’s Cheri Oteri, Cody consistently wins laughs with her supersensitive persona, baby giggles, and creative use of her omnipresent cow hand puppet. In “Bless the Lord,” Brandi Chavonne Massey shows us why her powerful, soulful belt earned her a spot in the national tour of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Though the vaudeville duet of “All for the Best” presents a prime opportunity for Paige to show us his skills, he leaves us with only a confusing meltdown of lyrics. The tightest number musically is General McArthur Hambrick’s gorgeous gospel-soul anthem “All Good Gifts.” In one of the most heartfelt, overtly religious songs in the show, Hambrick’s gooseflesh-worthy tenor soars above the ensemble as he hits the song’s zenith: “I really wanna thank you, Lord…” Hambrick, Luther Creek, and Jeff Wells then enact a gutbustingly hilarious version of the prodigal son parable involving moonwalking and silent movie gags. The best part is watching the cast in the background get an enormous kick out of seeing Wells, a comic genius with a terrifically elastic mug, wrap the audience around his little finger.
Following the rather lackluster “Light of the World,” the audience is invited on stage to drink some celebratory “wine”—a Dixie cup of grape juice—meet the actors, and walk across the Warner stage.
Act 2 kicks off with the show-stopping Mary Magdalen-esque “Turn Back, O Man,” during which petite redheaded siren Rachel Stern, clad in a hot-pink vinyl bustier, enters from the rear of the audience and stops to carouse with various men along the way. Although Rick Culp’s lackluster lighting design does little to set Stern apart from the cast, she revels in her ability to play with the words and music, sounding part Nina Simone, part Fran Drescher. The pacific and beautiful Christine Rea successfully turns the mood in “By My Side,” the most haunting and emotional song of the night. Even DeAngelis’ powerless blocking, too little feedback from Paige, and a poor sound mix cannot hamper Rea’s singing.
The acrobatic, gorgeously voiced Creek, wearing the costume designer’s tribute to the Wizards and the Redskins, gives an energetic and winning performance of “We Beseech Thee.” Then the mood crashes with the heartbreaking “On the Willows,” sung by the band at the Last Supper while Jesus bids farewell to his disciples, knowing that he will be betrayed by one of them. The Judas archetype, played by Singleton (the earlier John the Baptist), turns Jesus in; Jesus is then tried and crucified by the faceless citizens of Jerusalem. At this point, the cast does not put out enough hate to give Paige a starting point for his agony. The result is a crucifixion scene lacking in interpersonal connections, high on cheesy lighting and vocal effects, and topped off with Paige’s death scream, which he must have picked up from Steven Tyler on the Aerosmith tour. I’ll leave the happily morbid finale to your imagination, but suffice it to say, if I had small children, it might be hard to explain why the resurrection takes only three minutes rather than three days. But if there’s one thing you learn from Godspell, it’s forgiveness. CP