By Peter Barell
Arts and Entertainment Editor
Godspell was originally written and directed by John-Michael Tebelak in 1971, using the Gospel of Saint Matthew as a basis. Starting as a somewhat modest Masters’ thesis project at Carnegie Mellon, the musical had a rapid success; Godspell was staged at La MaMa, the Cherry Lane Theater, and the Promenade Theater on Broadway. Tebelak received the 1971 Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Director, before going on to co-write the 1973 film adaptation. More, the Christianity-heavy production went on to win several Tony Awards, with the involvement of the composer Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Wicked), whose additional lyrics and musics prevail today.
The newest broadway revival had its tour stop at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, November 8. Directed by David Hogan (A Starbright Christmas), the production starred Jake Stern (Hemlock Grove on TV) as Jesus, and Graham Parkhurst (Blood Brothers, Anne) as Judas. As usual, student tickets were available for $15 dollars.
As both an infrequent theater and church goer I was somewhat taken aback by the preach-heavy focus of the musical. Godspell is structured around the teachings of Jesus Christ, with a series of parables that establish Christian values through song. First seeing the stage, which had elevations for the actors and musicians, and featured a large backdrop made to look like the stained glass of a cathedral, it was apparent that I was out of place. Yet, I was wrong.
While at first Godspell seemed like a day at Sunday school with the Wiggles, the actors dressed in flamboyant colors, and uncomfortably enthusiastic, it was easy to have fun. The skill of Hogan as a director was apparent, where the interactions between the Stern, Parkhurst, and the rest of the cast were on point and fluid enough to have audience participation. First, an audience member was brought up to play a game of Pictionary that resulted in an answer to a parable. Two other times audience members were brought up, yet the fluidity of the musical was never halted. At the fifteen minute intermission, actors came off stage and served the blood of Christ, really Kool-aid, to the audience.
Godspell is a very adaptable musical. This was apparent in the modern references and jokes imbedded in the dialogue. To make examples, or mock characters for the parables, people like Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Linsday Lohan were satirized, with musical references that ranged from “Gangnam Style” to Lady Gaga. Being over forty years old, Godspell has had a great longevity, no doubt attributed to the malleability of its lyrics.
This current revival of Godspell will continue their tour into March, ending in Texas. Seeing a production of the musical is recommended, but only for those who have the patience and interest for a religiously charged experience.