“Godspell” Brings Scripture To Life
Audiences Friday night experienced The Acts of Faith Festival move into an effervescent new phase in the dialogue between theater and the faith community. Where in Richmond Triangle Players’ This Beautiful City we see a community divided by its growing spiritual polarization, Cadence Theater Company’s latest offering of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell speaks successfully to the human need for the formation of a spiritual community.
Artistic director Anna Johnson is adept at bringing distinction to the source material that is, while popularly beloved, critically controversial. Godspell has long been misunderstood as a Bohemian induced farce, but creator John-Michael Tebelak has long ago set the record straight: His musical is in homage to Harvey Cox’s treatise “The Feast of Fools,” which posits that festivity and fantasy are preconditions to transformative spiritual experience. Keenly aware of these two premises, her production, never bereft of unremitting humor and jaw dropping choreography, engages the audiences in a fantastical religious experience for 2 ½ hours.
While her interpretive strategy goes for the 1960s/1970s time stamp, the direction and staging is wholly unique and personal. It is hard not to notice that Johnson’s service as Minister to Children at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church adds a charming youthful element to both. And with the assistance of an unswerving talented cast, this production is ripe to invoke the nostalgia of children coming together to learn life’s valuable spiritual lessons. The narration of Jesus’ parables in Act I is didactic, fun and the pantomime that supports each is unequivocally charismatic. Act II is chillingly visceral and reverent of the passion of Christ. The lucid unity of the cast makes it difficult to magnify the talents of just a few beyond those who had solos, but it is a testament to this revival’s theme of community that the cast acts in seamless harmony.
Russell Rowland is relentlessly bold and humorous in his portrayal as John the Baptist and adroitly disquieting in his subsequent reemergence as Judas Iscariot, who precipitates the final deception against Jesus. Nick Shackleford dispenses with the usual Spiderman-shirt wearing caricature that is all too often foisted on creator John-Michael Tebelak’s Jesus, and instead is impressively evangelical in his portrayal as Jesus of Nazareth (and is also an innate magician as well!). T’Arah Craig provides a sensational rendition of “Learn Your Lessons Well” as Gilmer, and brings to the musical the Jewish elements of the Gospel of Matthew through her humorous Yiddish-inspired accents. Other soloists not to be missed are Brian Vaughan whose full voice as Lamar in “All Good Gifts” and Aly Wepplo’s poignant outcry as Peggy in “By My Side” compounds the show’s introspective and stirring catharsis. And Carolyn Meade is devilishly seductive in her interpretation of “Turn Back, O man” and playful with the audience.
On a technical side, the creative apogee is most undoubtedly in the hands of choreographer Leslie Owens-Harrington (member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society). The beauty and excitement of Johnson’s piece is driven by its palpable appreciation for human movement, and the effect of human movement on religious experience. In the musical’s iconic song “Day By Day,” Owens-Harrington superimposes a nuanced and multi-layered choreographic animation to a song that is lyrically plain. Where others might have mimicked the song’s simplicity, this choreography unleashes an intense religious festivity on the audience. And while the cast struggles somewhat in the “Prologue” to find their musical footing, the deft musical direction of Kim Fox unleashes the robustness of Stephen Schwartz’s eclectic score of gospel, rock and vaudeville by “Save the People.” Unfaltering until the “Finale,” each song keeps the theatergoers dancing in their seats.
This revival is a vibrant element in the Acts of Faith Festival, and adds musical perspective to the conversation on the way religion affects our community. With a keen emphasis on sharp humor, polychromatic artistry and multifaceted choreography, this production brings canonical scripture to life in the sanctuary of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Now, go and spread the good word.
“Godspell” runs through February 27, 2011 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://www.cadencetheatre.org/. Photo Credit Jay Paul Photography.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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