Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Review of "Godspell" at the Barnstormers Theater; published 3-21-07 in the News of Delaware County

In our age of shock jocks, reality television, and American Idol, it’s hard to imagine the “Sermon on the Mount” as an effective way to court viewers. In Godspell, Christ (or at least writer Stephen Schwartz) seems to understand this, as songs punctuate a retelling of the parables found in the Book of John through skits, vaudeville numbers, and even charades. When you consider what Christ has been up against (the play begins with a channel surf through the various philosophies of the last 500 years), it’s no surprise that he’d alter the medium of his message just a bit.

Half play, and half musical, Godspell (while a favorite of all theaters) is a very difficult show to pull off, requiring not only good singers, but standout comedic talent as well (original productions have included Gilda Radner and Martin Short). And while the current production at the Barnstormers offers a fantastic ensemble of singers, the production stumbles through the skits, and consequently loses the narrative message of the show.

Part of this failure rests on the co-directing of J. Everett Rihel and Steve Crooks (who also plays Jesus); the rest on the very silly premise of the show itself. Godspell opens on a disparate bunch—in this case, career day at a Catholic elementary school. Christ appears, and suddenly doctors and lawyers shed their modern profession to follow him and eagerly adapt their lives to his teachings. The show does this in a leap, requiring a strong cast to display initial reluctance that solidifies into a later discipleship.

But the Barnstormer production can’t equal the demands the show presents, and as such, a sense of “why are these people here” permeates the entire production. This becomes most evident at the crucifixion (Finale), where the emotions seem especially artificial, as Rihel and Crooks never provide the solid direction throughout that would solidify the acting needed at the end of this play.

However, Godspell is also half-musical, and here the production largely shines. In most of the songs, a cast member solos through verses, as the ensemble sings back up during the chorus. Nearly everyone sparkles, particularly Suzanne Staino in the sultry “Bless the Lord,” Jennifer Blakeley’s soulful “By My Side,” and the very pleasant voice of Caroline Pusak on the signature “Day by Day.” Randy Marcheski stands out in his own right, not only as the lone man in the ensemble, but as the only cast member who’s consistently on target in both singing and in the tremendous amount of comedy he infuses into this production. As Jesus, Crooks sings with a soft, lovely voice, however difficult it is to hear against the electric guitar that plays through most of his numbers.

Seeing Christ’s teachings dramatized, this production makes very evident how difficult it is to follow his commandments faithfully. His imperative to “not announce our good works” certainly hits home in an age of Angelina Jolie and Bono, while others seem both dated (“someone’s got to be oppressed”) or counterproductive (“don’t worry about the future”). But relevant or not, what clearly falls on deaf modern ears is the consequences of his (then) revolutionary ideas. Ages ago, Judas betrayed Christ to his death on the cross. The message today? The worst they could do is vote him off the show.

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