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There is never going to be just one right way to do a showif there were, revivals wouldn’t need directorsso I’m not going to suggest that John-Michael Tebelak’s original 1971 mounting of Godspell, with its tumbling clown-children, chain-link fencing, and hippie ambiance was in any way sacrosanct. It was not the right way to do this musical riff on the Gospel of St. Matthew, merely a right way.
It’s safe to say, however, that Kathy Feininger has stumbled upon not just a wrong way to do Godspell at Round House Theatre, but one of the wrongest possible ways. She has cast earnest, middle-aged performers rather than eager kids, and attired them in business suits rather than slapshoes and rubber nosescosmetic changes to be sure, but fatal to an enterprise that was always as much about unleashed youthful energy and vaudevillian verve as it was about turning water into wine. The effect is to transform an exuberant theatrical carnival into the stage equivalent of a 700 Club ministry.
For the truest of true believers, there’s probably nothing wrong with that, but for lovers of theater, what was once charming about Godspell now grates. What once reached out and amused now preaches and condescends. What seemed naively sweet is now practiced and just a tad relentless. Anyone who blanched at the white-leisure-suited, Up With People version Ford’s Theatre came up with for its Godspell revival a decade ago will be astonished at how much more annoying this winsome little revue can be in a really misguided mounting.
Take the opening. Please. Feininger illustrates composer Stephen Schwartz’s “Tower of Babble” number by outfitting her graying cast members with cell phones and imprisoning them behind a metal grid overlaid with images of office buildings. The effect is to place them (and us) in the real world, not in some liberating playground of the minda choice from which the evening never really recovers. But even in terms of the song itself, the director’s introduction of workplace concerns proves problematic. Do those cell phones mean that technology is the culprit when humankind has trouble communicating? Or is it our isolation in office cubicles? Well, never mind. There’s worse to come.
For after the cast has emerged from behind the grid and started singing “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” attired in lifeless grays and blacks that will eventually give way to more colorful leisure wear, the impression is all but inescapable that we’ve left the workplace for Bible camp. All these chirpy boomers, looking like third-grade teachers as they sing upbeat tunes and tell parablesit’s enough to make Jack and Rexella Van Impe seem hard-edged.
I hear you asking, Wasn’t it always thus? And the answer is, Not really. Though it’s hard to imagine a generation after the event, Godspell actually had a bit of an edge to it when it opened in 1971. With Richard Nixon still clinging to office and anti-war protests fresh in everyone’s mind, the show’s longhaired, flower-power types weren’t just clowns, they were the counterculture made flesh for theater audiences. At a time when hippies were identified with smoldering joints, bras, and draft cards rather than with religious piety, critics felt obligated to stress that this new show wasn’t irreverent or Hair-like.
In other words, while Godspell made its storytellers cuddly and nonthreatening from the outset, it did so as an antidote to prevailing images. It wouldn’t be hard to come up with similar images todaykids with tattoos, say, and safety pins through their eyebrowsbut without them, the sweetness isn’t pushing against anything. It’s just sweet. Or, rather, saccharinewith a sometimes nasty, neo-con aftertaste, as when a sinner who’s balking at casting the first stone gets hit with a derisive, “Ah, don’t be a pansy.”
The evening’s one toughening influence is its Jesus, sharply played by Rob McQuay, who has been wheelchair-bound since an accident at the beach several years ago. Accommodating his special requirements doesn’t seem to have caused the production any serious problems, and his firm vocals and grounded personality are sure assets. Morgan Duncan is also fine as a jaunty John the Baptist/Judas, though cuteness sits on him less well today than it must have when he first played the role 15 years ago.
The director and her cast have been modestly inventive about coming up with Judge Judy and Forrest Gump jokes to update the evening, but they’re generally less successful in putting over the songs and getting audiences to clap along. This is a matter partly of flagging energy, partly of production style. There’s a big difference, after all, between a pigtailed clown vamping an audience with a Mae West come-on in “Turn Back, O Man,” and a thirtysomething matron in a smart pantsuit and satiny blouse doing the same thing. With the former, it’s a joke; with the latter, it’s just a vamp.
Hugo Medrano’s lackluster staging of Raíces Cubanas/A Cuban Mosaic at Gala Hispanic Theatre isn’t nearly as self-destructive, but it’s something less than this vibrant, colorful material deserves. Having condensed a couple of centuries of Cuban culture into two hours of boleros, mambos, and vivid poems, and hired a local cast to sing, stomp, and recite the hell out of them, the director evidently felt he’d done his bit and could relax.
Alas, theatrical revues aren’t quite that effortless, especially when they’re being performed in both Spanish and English and involve a cast of 19. The operating aesthetic here seems to have been that the material is strong enough to fend for itself, and that’s pretty much what happens. Songs don’t flow into one another, and poems don’t provide bridges between moods or context for the music. They just get performedpleasantly, for the most partafter which the singers, dancers, or reciters head for the wings, and someone new takes over.
Fortunately, the songs, which range from tortured ballads to fiery congas, are pretty terrific, and the cast is blessed with the presence of a gorgeous and passionately full-voiced siren (Ana M. Castrello) and a sturdy baritone (Pablo Talamante) to put the best of them across. In fact, the show sounds good enough that you can’t help wishing it looked better and moved more smoothly.
Part of the problem is that Medrano mostly clusters his singers at the back of the stage near the orchestra, leaving a large empty space past which they must project, for no particular reason. Even the dancers rarely venture onto the front 6 feet or so of the stage apron. It’s as if everyone’s afraid of the audiencewhich is hardly the ideal way to put across music that tends to be buoyant and rousing.
Design elements are also a mixed bag. Designer Hector Torres has provided tall, three-sided panels that rotate to reveal colorful jungle and dance backdrops and a black-on-silver nightclub setting. But the silver foil is wrinkled, the panels turn awkwardly, and Ellen Bone’s lighting doesn’t do much for them, so they’re only marginally mood-enhancing. Carlos Giménez’s band is betterfresh, vigorous, and rhythmicand Alessandra D’Ovidio has come up with a riot of colorful gowns and frilly shirts that, like the performers who wear them, bounce to every beat.CP