John-Michael Tebelak’s “Godspell” originated as his master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970. It grabbed the attention of producers in 1971, and then composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz penned a new score and additional lyrics.
It is an uplifting musical described as playing out parables of the Gospel according to Matthew (though a few are found only in Luke). The play has had numerous revivals and updates, the most recent on Broadway in 2011.
Using the latest script revision, the production by Poor Richard’s Players and Off-Strip Productions at the Onyx Theatre, under the skilled direction of Lysander Abadia, is excellent.
Great latitude is offered for interpretation of the setting. Past productions have placed the action in such diverse locations as an airport terminal. Here, with raw chipboard flats (braces in full view) and unpainted lumber to create a variety of chairs, tables and soapboxes from which to preach, set designer Wren Abadia wisely places this production “anywhere.”
Costumes, which went uncredited in the program, are current everyday street clothes, solidifying the notion that the apostles we see following Jesus could be “anyman.” The genius of this is that it engages immediately, pulling us directly into the play.
In the only singular role of the script, Benjamin Loewy proves his versatility as he imbues each parable with appropriate everyman qualities that grab us from the beginning and hold our attention. His lyric baritone voice, coupled with expressive emotion and action, transitions seamlessly to make us believe. We’re ready to follow his Jesus anywhere.
Abadia has made much of nontraditional casting. For instance, musical director Karalyn Clark brings wonderful qualities to her dual roles of John the Baptist and Judas.
The score touches on every genre, from hillbilly country and gospel to rock ’n’ roll and rap. In this case, it has been whittled down to piano (Clark) with additional musical direction by John Chrastka (acoustic guitar) — no easy feat. Then, Clark accomplishes something rarely heard in local theater: She blends voices into beautiful choral harmonies as in the female quartet performance of “By My Side.”
Matt Phillips, Audrei-Kairen and Ashley Patrice all turn in nuanced and memorable performances in their numerous roles. Phillips is particularly engaging in the role of Lazarus, who dies and returns to life. That is not to intimate that the remaining members of the ensemble are slouches. Kevin Rayford, Tammi Colombo, Alanna Gallo, John Chrastka and Mikey Phillips round out this very talented cast.
Jake Copenhaver’s light design enhances every mood from solemn to hilarious with just the right ambience.
With precise staging and choreography, to the smallest of props, Abadia and his team have paid so much attention to the slightest details, everything culminates in a fun, enticing evening. If this were a church, I’d be flinging the doors wide open to join.
Editors Note: One of the most proud associations of my career came when I directed an eccuminical touring production out of Wyoming, made up of kids 13 to young adults in their 20's. The crowning moment came as I directed the crucifiction and the young talent understood. Every performance after that there was not a dry eye in the house, regardless of religious affiliation or belief.