Godspell – Review by Brooks Appelbaum

Jacqueline Hubbard, Artistic Director of The Ivoryton Playhouse and director of the current production of “Godspell,” calls the show “a delightful romp,” and she has directed the show to emphasis its joy. The mostly young cast has an abundance of energy, and the evening goes at a lively pace. However, the choice to direct almost all the songs and stories for crackling comedy sacrifices the nuances—and there are many—of this unusual and layered musical. Too, in making this “Godspell” consistently presentational—nearly every moment is played to the audience—the production nearly loses the central concept of Jesus as the ultimate, if ultimately tragic, teacher.

“Godspell,” conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, is loosely based on the Gospel of St. Matthew. Ivoryton is presenting the revised production of 2012. The show uses mostly humorous presentations of the parables interspersed with musical numbers to tell the story of Jesus’ teachings, betrayal, and death, and the birth of Christianity. The songs range from funny (“All for the Best”), satirical (“Turn Back, O Man”), poignant (“Day by Day” and “All Good Gifts”), and heart-rending (“By My Side,” “On the Willows”). All are beautifully tuneful, which is a large part of “Godspell’s” appeal.

Part of its appeal, too, is its timeless story, potentially powerful for believers and non-believers alike. Audiences know that, no matter how rambunctious or hilarious parts of “Godspell” may be early on, the narrative arc must take us on a disturbing and tragic journey before the hopeful coda. For this reason, quiet and serious moments are key to drawing us into the action. Key, also, is the casting. Each of Jesus’ disciples must have a specific and endearing personality that we discover as the evening moves on. Especially important, of course, are the actors playing Jesus and Judas.

As Judas, Carson Higgins (previously seen at Ivoryton in “Memphis The Musical” and “Little Shop of Horrors”) gives one of the most complex and intense performances onstage, and whenever he is spotlighted—whether comically or darkly—we sense the depth of the piece and remember how, inevitably, Jesus’ life must end.

Unfortunately, Sam Sherwood—so fine as The Guy in “Once” and in “The Road: My Life with John Denver”—doesn’t convey the same complexity in Jesus. Taller than nearly everyone else onstage and with “The boy-most-likely-to-succeed” good looks, Sherwood hasn’t been guided to convey this character’s mysterious mix of humility and charisma, his lightly worn wisdom, and especially the vulnerability that comes in painful flashes, forecasting his fate. Most importantly, Hubbard hasn’t helped Sherwood embody Jesus as a remarkably gifted, loving, and inventive teacher, and so his relationship with the disciples loses its urgent undertone and tender poignancy.

To her great credit, though, Hubbard doesn’t back away from the very dark and disturbing end of Jesus’ life on earth. In this section of the piece, she has made certain that Sherwood capture the fear, mental anguish, and physical agony of his torment. Her staging, difficult to watch in its intensity, demonstrates the skill and deep investment she brings to the story’s arc.

Also, Hubbard’s work with many of the other actors yields some terrific performances. Jerica Exum, who gives us a gorgeous “Bless the Lord,” is unfailingly funny, touching, and fully present at every moment. Morgan Morse is a fine musician and his “Light of the World” is a high point. And Josh Walker nearly steals the show with his charm, his intelligence, and his glorious reprise, on piano, of “Learn Your Lessons Well.”

The set, designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, is puzzling: we seem to be in a blown-out warehouse, or an alley, in tones of brown and black, with boarded-up doorways, and wooden boxes and scraps of drab fabric strewn about. Is this to emphasize Jesus’ exhortations to serve God rather than money or material things? It’s hard to say. Cully Long’s costumes help to give each character his/her/their unique personalities, and the addition of colorful scarves not only helps create the parables simply, but also brings to the stage a welcome wash of color. Marcus Albott’s lighting is most effective, and Todd Underwood’s choreography, though a bit muddy at times, conveys the vivacity that director Hubbard clearly wants to emphasize.

For those who expect to see a “Godspell” that gives equal weight to the fun, the depth, and the sorrow of this story, Ivoryton’s production may not be the ideal choice. However, the evening will please anyone who mainly wants to enjoy humor, joy, energy, and zest.

GODSPELL opens on May 22 and runs thru June 16 for 4 weeks. Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm. There will be one Thursday matinee on May 23rd and two Saturday matinees on June 1st and June 15th. 

Tickets are $55 adult / $50 senior / $25 student / $20 children 12 and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting our website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org  (Group rates and subscriptions are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton.

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