“Godspell” first exploded off Broadway in 1971, one of a cluster of rock musicals that spun a festive relationship with the Bible. In less than a ten-year span, we got “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.” The last one isn’t revived much but the first three have become staples of the musical theater scene, with ”Godspell” on view at the Marriott Theatre, performed with immense energy by an ebullient and talented cast of 10 young performers.
“Godspell” is based on the Gospel of St. Matthew (godspell is an ancient spelling of gospel). The show is exuberant and funny, keeping the audience both entertained and off balance by the continuous injection of very mod wisecracks and name-dropping. I don’t think the original production in 1971 included references to selfies and Justin Bieber and I doubt either would be found in the New Testament gospel.
In its presentation, “Godspell” resembles a G-rated version of “Hair.” A group of young hippie style men and women ricochet around the stage, moving from song to song with little narrative or character delineation. The book comes from Matthew, supplemented by those 21st century interpolations. The first act and a bit of the second act are noisy and bumptious, concluding on a dramatic note with the final days of Jesus Christ (the show stops with the Crucifixion). A plot is replaced by the many parables delivered by Jesus and his disciples. The only characters from the Biblical account delineated by name are Judas and John the Baptist, along with Jesus.
The score by Stephen Schwartz is an Olympian showcase for the powerhouse voices distributed throughout the Marriott ensemble. Everyone on stage has at least one blistering number. The glory of their performances resides not just in their vocal technique (lots of singers can sing loudly and well), but in the passion and fervor they bring to their songs. These young people really sell Schwartz’s score with a commitment and an enthusiasm that is totally infectious. The performers belt out their pieces like true believers, and that makes for potent emotional contact with the viewer.
Matt Raftery has already built a major league resume as a choreographer and he comes up large in “Godspell,” with one exhilarating dance moment after another, including a pair of joyous bits that have the cast going through spectacular drills with hula hoops and long ribbons attached to sticks. The stamina on stage never flags and those youngsters seem to be having fun every second of the time, until the mood grows muted with the start of Jesus’ final days. The cast is in perpetual motion but even at warp speed they never miss a step, indicating a fierce number of rehearsal hours were spent to ensure that every number looks gleefully spontaneous.
Brian Bohr takes on the intimidating role of Jesus. Bohr has an agreeably preppy look and his Jesus is charismatic but not officious. Bohr tells the parables like they are genuine mini stories and not Biblical texts in verbal bold face. The dialogue has enough famous quotations to fill a full-length Shakespeare play but the telling throughout is natural and persuasive. Raftery and Bohr give Jesus’s final days and death a poignancy and intensity that is neither overly sentimental nor strident, no small feat.
Devin DeSantis plays both John the Baptist and Judas with considerable dramatic strength... Samantha Pauly drew well deserved cheers for her rousing “Turn Back, O Man,” as did Nate Lewellyn for “Light of the World,” and Lillie Cummings with the score’s big hit, “Day by Day.” But everyone has his or her big spotlight occasion and a mere recitation of other six names isn’t meant to minimize their vocal achievements—Elizabeth Lanza, Christine Mild, Eliza Palasz, Zachary Piser, and Tom Vendafreddo. Beyond their singing, they have bought into Raftery’s directing heart and soul and it shows.
The physical production doesn’t overwhelm the acting and singing with visual clutter, a credit to Erin Wuoremna’s colorful hippie-ish costumes and Thomas Ryan’s breezy set design with its nursery style chests and planks and sawhorses. Jessie Klug designed the vivid lighting and Robert Gilmartin the sound. Patti Garwood conducts the accomplished five piece orchestra that does fine with Schwartz’s light rock, gospel, folkish, and Paul Simon sounding music.
...What finally sells “Godspell” is the verve, versatility, and dedication of the 10-member troupe. Raftery has guided his talented gang well...The production turns from fun show to serious with sensitivity and poignancy. This isn’t a Sunday school lesson wrapped in a rock music cloak. It’s first rate theater presented by an energized and skilled, adding another directorial gold star on Matt Raftery’s record.