“Godspell” is very nostalgic to me. I played the role of Jesus back in 2001, my junior year of high school. The 1971 original version of the show, then, was awe-inspiring and still is to this day.
“Godspell” is innovative and it speaks to people, like myself, musically. The flower-child vibe of the show was still relatable in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Today, the original version of the show is still reaching and teaching people across the world.
It has even spawned a book called ‘The Godspell Experience’ by Carol de Diere. So when I heard LTN was doing this show I knew I had to see it. I still remember the lyrics word for word. However, when I realized it was the 2012 revised version, my excitement mellowed out because I knew it wasn’t going to be what I remembered. The show has gone through several updates, but the core message is still the same.
“Godspell” is a musical by Stephen Schwartz with a book by John-Michael Tebelak. The structure of the musical is that of a series of parables, mostly based on the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke. The parables are interspersed with a variety of modern music set primarily to lyrics from traditional hymns, with the passion of Christ treated briefly near the end of the performance. It opened off Broadway on May 17, 1971, and has played in various touring companies and revivals many times since, including a 2011 revival which played on Broadway, but not for very long. The audience didn’t receive the updated Broadway revival well. I can’t say the same for the audience who saw Little Theatre of Norfolk’s production.
The musical opens with the ensemble entering the theatre with signs protesting various and even hilarious causes such as “people who hang Christmas lights too early.” Then the ensemble greeted the audience with the curtain speech. While it was comical at points, I wish it was a little more organic and not read off paper or cellphone. If it was just the cellphones it wouldn’t have bothered me as much due to the huge technological boost this version of the show gets. We loved the interaction the cast had with us, the audience, in the opening as well as throughout the show. Snapchats, Tweets and Instagram posts abounded, and drove home the point we weren’t in 1971 anymore. The vocal prowess of the ensemble is introduced in the musically-complicated acapella prologue… a Tower of Babel argued by philosophers, which was crafted perfectly by musical director Karla Robinson. The harmonies displayed were great, and the ensemble blended perfectly. Their harmonies added feeling to the melodies, uplifting the music during numbers like ‘Tower of Babel’ while also creating a sense of melancholy during other numbers. The “babel” is interrupted by John the Baptist, played by David Sinclair, who leads the ensemble in the song “Prepare Ye”, my favorite. They stayed pretty true to the original song and Mr. Sinclair did the song justice. We then meet Nathan Jacques, who portrays Jesus. He cleverly injects himself in the audience watching the ensemble, proudly on stage. He was very welcoming and has a calming aura just as I imagine Jesus would have. He definitely wanted the others to understand who he was and follow what he was trying to teach them. I just wish we saw more of the gentle side of Jesus. He has a fine voice and delivers in the softer numbers but vocally left us wanting more in the aggressive “Alas for You,” though an incorrect balancing of sound might’ve been much of the problem. Director Shelly Nowacek’s cast are at home with the updated pop culture references. It seems she gives them free reign; nothing seems forced.
…At first. Nods to Hillary Clinton, Hamilton and Donald Trump are delivered with perfection, and the laughs they get are well-deserved. However, by Act 2 I felt it was overkill and most of the references began to feel like forced attempts to connect with a present-day audience whose memory banks are like their ever-changing Snapchats, Instagrams and Facebook walls.
The music in the revision has been given a once-over, as well, with sometimes radically tricked-out new arrangements. Gone is the humdrum folk of “God Save the People,” replaced by an almost-reggae tune; the original version’s gospel revival of “We Beseech Thee” (which I and another audience member I spoke to loved) has been canned in favor of neo-country, which – like some of the contemporary jokes – felt corny. Some of these changes, such as adding the made-for-movie song “Beautify City,” were hits, and some were misses. Even this great cast couldn’t turn those misses around.
Anyhow, for all that’s changed, it’s still much of the same spell. “Bless the Lord,” sang magnificently by Kaleeha Clark, is still the first number to bring down the house. She provided the show’s first burst of raw emotional power. Other passionate individual performances elevate songs that might, in less expert hands, show their age, such as Gavin Harper’s brilliant performance of “All Good Gifts.” And the fiery tune of “Turn Back, O Man” is still an audience favorite. Angelica Yankauskas made sure we would love this number. She played with the audience, even sitting on this reviewer’s shoulders and singing. “By My Side,” an effortlessly soulful number by Alyssa Sortino, was a welcomed change of pace. Toni Braxton would be proud. I wish she wasn’t placed so far upstage, that way we wouldn’t have had to try so hard to hear her.
With all the effort and energy the awesome cast was putting forth, I felt they were done a disservice by not having great sound. We were not able to hear them most of the time. When the cast all sang together it was strong. When you got to certain solo numbers, no matter how hard they projected their voices you couldn’t hear them over the band. Choreography by Becca Schatti was just right. It didn’t call for anything excessive or too showy. She balanced the skill of the actors with the temperament of show with ease. The set, designed by director Shelley Nowacek, is very abstract and engaging. She uses the whole stage and also has some special effects (designed by Matt Plante) that wowed the crowd as well. The actors use the whole theatre as their playground, which this show calls for. If all the action had been relegated to the stage this show would have suffered, but it did not.
Those of an age to recall the 1971 version of “Godspell” are in for some surprises while enjoying the 2012 revised version on stage at Little Theatre of Norfolk. The show is, at its core, an exercise in youthful exuberance and letting one’s light shine before mankind. Stephen Schwartz said it best: “Godspell is about the formation of a community.” However, the strengths of the original have been so weighted down by cheerless improvements that those who, like myself, prefer the 1971 Godspell may find the 2012 Godspell lacking. In no way is that this production’s fault. The message is still the same. So come together, go forth and enjoy LTN’s production of Godspell.
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