Godspell – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre, Phoenix

After a five-year run off-Broadway, then a further year on Broadway, Godspell may rank as one of the more successful though oddest musicals ever to emerge from the Great White Way. Consider the following: It has no structure in the traditional sense; there’s no plot; no setting; no sense of time; plus, it’s a religious piece, its text taken almost entirely from the Bible – elements that would hardly help sell a project to any theatre manager on Broadway today, let alone an audience. Yet, over four generations later, it remains among the most joyous, playful, and infectious pieces of hand-clapping musical theatre you’re ever likely to experience.

Director Michael Barnard’s new presentation is based not on the original early seventies show, but the revised version that opened on Broadway in 2011. The clown makeup and the colorful garb that denoted the completion of conversion from a babbling lost soul to a disciple is gone. Plus, instead of an empty set backed by a high, metallic playground fence, there’s a newly designed public park area with rocks creating boundaries, plus an off-centered tree. Purists of the original may not be entirely happy, but on reflection, updating things is exactly what the show required.

Writer John-Michael Tebelak had always intended his play with music to be a way of making religious themes accessible to modern audiences. Bring them alive in the way that a sermon, void of anything festive and spoken dryly from the pulpit, could never do. At a time of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, war protests, and a hippie culture that hadn’t quite faded, having Jesus and his disciples happily bouncing around on stage with touches of clown makeup while dressed in hippie garb was part of the way to modernize things in ‘71, and to make it accessible.

But in 2018, the early seventies, its style, even its language, is history. When Jesus taught his lessons, he used examples of his time to illustrate a point. When Godspell began in ‘71, it updated elements to do the same thing. Forty-seven years later, newer, younger audiences who need to relate are not going to do it with a cast appearing like a left-over counter culture while using seventies slang. Unlike Hair when performed today, Godspell is not a period piece. In order for it to do what was always intended, it needs that update.

The show’s opening number, the prologue: Tower of Babble, is often cut, but director Barnard has not only left it intact, he’s also updated some of the ideological references. The scene begins the show by presenting its nine cast members as spouting their differing philosophical viewpoints to whoever will listen, then trying to out-argue the other until it all turns into a cacophony of babble. The show quotes Socrates, Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Luther, but look closely on the mouthpieces the current cast use and you’ll see signs reading spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson, and whatever L. Ron Hubbard is supposed to be. Interestingly, the song was never included on the original cast recording; it differed considerably from how the pop/rock style of the rest of the score was being marketed, and its inclusion would have harmed its seventies Billboard chart position.

It’s then when John the Baptist (Eddie Maldonado) appears, gathering the cast together while declaring they should Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord, and baptizes them. And, as prophosized, Jesus (Michael Sample) arrives. He watches John conclude his baptisms, then announces, “I wanna get washed up.”

What follows is something not altogether unlike a lengthy sermon. Parables, taken mostly from the Gospel of Matthew, are taught and enacted in a series of broadly comical sketches by the cast, and capped with a song that often quotes a lyric or a line from a hymn. While there’s no plot – this is not the story of Jesus in the way that Superstar told a story – at the end of the day when the teaching of the lesson is done, there is a Last Supper and a Crucifixion.

The cast is an attractive looking troupe who use their first names as their character names. Thus, actor and the show’s choreographer, Molly Lajoie is Molly, while Edgar Lopez is Edgar, and so on. Only Jesus and John keep their original names. In the case of Maldonado, he somehow morphs from John into Judas. Writer Tebelak never fully explained why he used this tactic other than once stating in an interview that both names began with the letter ‘J.’ But the important thing is, figuring things out is not important. Like the absence of a resurrection, looking at Godspell in any literary sense is not the point; it’s not a biblical history lesson, and to find offense in John becoming Judas, or the absence of Christ rising from the dead is redundant; it’s the meaning behind the parables and the benefits of learning our lessons well that matter.

Godspell was never a vehicle for someone with marquee value, it was always an ensemble piece. And like any ensemble, you tend to favor watching a favorite cast member over another. By default, both Jesus and John/Judas attract attention – Sample with his tall, lean frame and handsome rock ‘n roll looks could clearly be cast as no one else other than our western perception of who Jesus was, while Maldonado’s Judas effectively carries the weight of a guilt that comes crashing down when betraying the son of God – but you’ll find yourself thoroughly engaged more by the remaining nine, the disciples, all of whom possess the zip and drive of an Energizer Bunny (they never quit) and all with strong voices that blow the dust off the catchy, seventies pop/rock Stephen Schwartz score.

Like the overall production, the music is also tweaked. We Beseech Thee, cut from the film, thankfully returns, as does Learn Your Lessons Well, though instead of it being a quick, rinky-dink, jaunty number, it now has a raw, energetic, punk arrangement from the excellent five-piece live band; you can learn those lessons while banging your head. Save the People has changes to the lyrics (minor, but they’re there) plus there’s the inclusion of a song written only for the film, Beautiful City, that has now become part of the stage musical.

Interestingly, rather than it being an upbeat, sing-a-along, Beautiful City is now a slow, wistful ballad sung by Jesus as the disciples assemble at the end of the day for the supper, then repeated prior to the finale. Like many musicals, Godspell’s message and everything you need to know is accomplished in the first half, making its second half somewhat problematic in content and timing. Having Judas, in his Greatest Showman jacket, blow his Big Top Master of Ceremonies whistle marking the beginning of the betrayal doesn’t work quite as effectively with all the seventies clown and circus atmosphere now removed. Plus with the solemn delivery of On The Willows, the Finale of “Oh, God, You’re Bleeding,” then Long Live God, having Beautiful City now in that mix as another ballad only lengthens the solemnity.

Ultimately, however, despite the tweaks and changes that may not work for everyone, Godspell remains what it always was; great, uplifting fun. This new, high-energy production at Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre, now in performance until May 20, proves why.

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography 

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