Godspell – Review by Tom Holehan

It’s ain’t your grandpa’s “Godspell” currently on stage in a mostly welcome new revision at A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut in Ridgefield. Stephen Schwartz’s seminal off-Broadway classic from 1971 has always been at the mercy of directors looking to put their own spin on a musical that is open to the free insertion of contemporary cultural references. There should be a limit, however. I still long for a more traditional and straight forward production of this musical that fondly informed my teenage years.

“Godspell”, with music by Schwartz and book by John-Michael Tebelak, utilizes parables from the Gospel of Saint Matthew in telling a free-wheeling tale of Jesus’ deeds on earth. It has always welcomed a loosey-goosey approach in production with the original using a circus type venue with actors in clown costumes delivering the gospel tales.

At ACT, where a new revision has been conceived and directed by Daniel C. Levine, a confused and dimly lit preamble opens the show before barely a note of music is played. A trove of what appears to be homeless children straight out of Dickens comes crawling into an abandoned church filled with debris. They are soon interrupted by a group of investment bankers and real estate brokers wearing hardhats and discussing the money they are about to make when the church is converted into high-end condos. Fifteen minutes of this tedium made me anxious, but once the odd prelude concluded, it was thankfully never referenced again.

That’s when Jesus (a winning Trent Saunders) enters the scene and proceeds to begin what we expect a production of “Godspell” to look like. Levine crowds his musical with an unlimited supply of contemporary references that range from humorous to abhorrent. These include a “Game of Thrones” shout-out which is all set-up and little pay-off and a Harvey Weinstein bit that screams to be cut. Despite the occasional intrusions, however, Schwartz’s score has never sounded better.
The ten-member company, with the addition of a melodic children’s choir kept unobtrusively above the stage in the loft, all have moments to shine with stand-out musical numbers. Saunders, with his flowing locks and easy smile, is a magnetic Jesus never better than when leading the company in an exuberant “Save the People”. He’s also a singular powerhouse in the solo, “Alas for You” and warmly reflective in a rendition of “Beautiful City” later in the show.

No, there isn’t a weak voice in the company with standout performances by Alex Lugo (“Learn Your Lessons Well”), Jacob Hoffman (“We Beseech Thee”), Emma Tattenbaum-Fine (“Turn Back, O Man”), Andrew Poston (“All Good Gifts”) and Katie Ladner (the iconic “Day by Day”). It’s always a thrill to hear one of Schwartz’s best scores delivered by a top-notch company of actors.

In seconds the remarkable scenic design by Reid Thompson transforms from what looks like a back alley dumping ground to the crumbling interior of a church, all stained glass, Gothic style pendant lights and weathered brick. Jack Mehler’s lighting, which also includes a dizzying strobe effect at times, completes the stage picture perfectly. Musical director Danny White achieves an amazing sound with the three men who make up his band and ACT seems to have gotten the memo about turning down the volume a tad so these great voices can really soar. When this production is singing, all miracles are possible.

“Godspell” continues at ACT of Connecticut in Ridgefield through March 8. For ticket reservations or further information call: 475.215.5433 or visit: www.actofct.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor and resident critic of WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.