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Marriott’s ‘Godspell’ schools the church

If more clergy would convey Jesus’ story with Matt Raftery‘s authenticity, creativity, clarity and joy, they could stop worrying about declining Sunday attendance.

Indeed, the director of Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre’s Godspell is schooling the church by offering musical theatre congregants a look at a fun, young, vibrant, colorful and kind “J.C. and the Sunshine Band.” This Godspell is summer 2014′s jubilant hit.

The well-known Stephen Schwartz musical with the John-Michael Tebelak book opened off Broadway on May 17, 1971, and has played in some iteration ever since at a church or community theatre just around the corner, no matter where one lives. Centered on Jesus’ parables from the Gospel of Matthew and set in modern settings, Godspell is best known for its catchy and tender songbook (“Day by Day,” “All Good Gifts,” “By My Side,” etc.) that rocketed Schwartz’s career heavenward (Pippin, Wicked, etc.). 

But Raftery’s cast is no mere church group, and Marriott’s professional production blows any catechism class out of the water Jesus walks on. The opening chaos of cell phones and business attire juxtaposed with the cast’s quick transformation back to their youth by the clarion call of John the Baptist (Devin DeSantis) instantly identifies this production as creatively accessible to all ages.

Its simple park setting and toys as props place the spotlight on the vocal chops and strong songbook, set to the updated orchestrations from the 2011 Broadway revival. DeSantis intones “Prepare Ye” impeccably, setting the bar ultimately met by the rest of this fabulous ensemble cast.

Brian Bohr is a terrific casting choice for Jesus, everyone’s best friend. He is at once vulnerable, dorky and in control—the perfect teacher.

Marriott’s Godspell ensemble features a sea of new faces sharing its in-the-round stage alongside Lincolnshire veterans Elizabeth Lanza, Nate Lewellyn and Christine Mild. Making triumphant Marriott debuts are Lillie Cummings, Eliza Palasz, Samantha Pauly, Zachary Piser and Tom Vendafreddo. Remember the names; they’ll be back—all of them.

To one observer, Lanza’s “By My Side,” Pauly’s “Turn Back, Oh Man,” Bohr’s “Alas for You,” and Piser’s “We Beseech Thee” are particular musical highlights. But in truth, each member of this talented ensemble has his or her shining moment. Indeed, Vendafreddo has many by adding his fun onstage keyboarding skills to the musical mix led expertly by Music Director Ryan T. Nelson.

Patrons considering whether to attend this Godspell should know its book centers on Jesus’ humanity rather than his divinity. True to its origins, this production includes no resurrection, yet its final scene is stunning and poignant (kudos to Lighting Designer Jesse Klug).

To the same observer taken with Lanza’s “By My Side,” a clear theological teaching comes through—that even when one’s trust and faith are weakened, there is a call to build a beautiful life—brick by brick, day by day.

Perhaps some diocese should hire Raftery as a consultant.