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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Godspell Well Served at Paper Mill

Also see Bob's review of The Best Man

Godspell
Dan Kohler and Joshua Henry
Godspell, based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, is largely a Story Theatre-like retelling of Christian biblical parables punctuated and amplified by a simple, melodic score by Stephen Schwartz. For the new production opening the 2006-2007 Paper Mill Playhouse season, director Daniel Goldstein has stripped away the detritus of flower children in clown make-up. This intelligent approach makes a timeless musical out of one which, when presented in its original staging, had become very dated.

Godspell has been immensely popular since its opening. It opened over thirty-five years ago in 1971 off-Broadway where it ran for 2,214 performances. After transferring to Broadway in 1976, Godspell continued its run for an additional 527 performances.

When we enter, we see two scaffolds on the curtainless stage. There are bars (possibly those designed to drop curtains and scenic elements from the flies) which suggest additional scaffolding further up stage. Light bulbs protected by metal casings are attached all about the scaffolding. There is a cloth ceiling and rear backdrop suggesting a large tent. There is a youthful cast of ten, five males and five females. Dressed in workaday street clothes, they adorn and change their outfits with colorful costumes and accessories which appear to come from a clothes rack which is rolled onto the stage a few minutes in. The costumes have the look of items that one might find in a costume shop or antique clothing store (one is a chest-covering men's black and white striped bathing suit out of a Mack Sennett silent). Director Goldstein has stated that his concept for this production is of "people coming together, out of a storm, and finding refuge in the theatre and in each other." It is when the rack is rolled out that we sense that events are transpiring in a theatre.

Initially, the actors, some employing exaggerated stage accents, spout words from the writings of various philosophers. These are dismissed as so much babble as in Tower of Babble. Actor Joshua Henry directs a stream of water come from the ceiling into a rain barrel and sprinkles the other actors with it. He is here John the Baptist, although in a minute or so, he will assume the role of Judas for the balance of the evening. Henry leads the company in singing "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord." John the Baptist defers to the entering Jesus (Dan Kohler) who asks in a musical setting from St. Matthew that "God Save the People."

For the balance of the first act, Jesus primarily illustrates his teachings with parables which are enacted in the vernacular with exuberant, comic style. Stories (parables) of the widow and the judge, the Pharisee and the tax collector, the master and the indebted servant, the Good Samaritan, Lazarus and the rich man, and the sower and the seed. There is no forward progression in the story. Although the other eight actors as a group are usually portraying disciples, there are no characters other than Jesus and Judas and neither one is given any character develop.m.ent.

However, Godspell cannot be held to conventional standards. It is a family show intended by its creator, the late John-Michael Tebelak, to counteract the lack of joy that he had encountered in an Easter service, and the hostility which he felt that his counter culture appearance engendered in his fellow parishioners. When not rigidly adhering to the Gospel, it is designed to have an improvisational feel. These "improvisations" are developed by the director and actors during rehearsal (there are one or two instances in which actual improvisation appears to occur, but it seemed to me that they were planned and scripted). They are broadly played and elicit much laughter. It took me a while to warm to the presentations and their child pleasing puns. However, before long, aided by the exuberant music and cast, the comic enactments of these parables provide for delightful entertainment. And I'm certain that the fact that these parables are presented so deftly and made accessible to young children will make them absolutely irresistible to families and church youth groups. It must be duly noted that among the bright melodies here is Schwartz's breakout hit, "Day by Day."

The only moment of drama in act one occurs when Judas puts his arm around Jesus and hisses to him that he will be persecuted. Jesus quickly bypasses the moment and leads Judas into a good timey, honky-tonk, vaudevillian song that one should not be upset if one's life is rotten ("Don't forget that when you go to Heaven/ You'll be blessed/ Yes, it's all for the best").

Director Daniel Goldstein does his best work in his direction of the parables. His work and act one rise to a crescendo in the parable of The Prodigal Son. Performed in cowboy style, the son goes off for gambling and women to sinful Las Vegas. One actor is enrobed in a cloth mural which serves as a moving highway to Sin City as it is rolled off his turning body and onto the body of another turning actor across the stage about ten feet away. Not every invention is sure footed. As it is being used in Spamalot, the Las Vegas advertisement tag line should not have been used, and the joke intended by the inclusion of the end title, "The Passion of the Prodigal Son" directed by M. Night Shyamalan, eluded me (it is possible that I missed a visual clue). Also the inclusion of cross dressing rather than being clever or sophisticated is rude in these circumstances. Goldstein also keeps thing lively by bringing his actors into the audience on several occasions.

During the second act some controversial writings of St. Matthew (which do not appear in any of the other Gospels) which this reviewer finds troubling come to the fore. Jesus, who heretofore has counseled all on the necessity of limitless love, forgiveness and generosity towards one's enemies, turns viciously on those who question him, particularly the Pharisees (the priests of a devout and leading branch of Judaism in the era of Jesus who have become reviled). For example in the song "Alas For You," the lyric sung includes the following:

You snakes, you viper's brood
You cannot escape being Devil's food! ...
Blind guides, blind fools
The blood you spill
On you will fall!
This nation, this generation
Will bear the guilt of it all! ...

The tender song "Beautiful City" written for the film and then rewritten for a Los Angeles production (it seems that Schwartz found the original lyric to be too sentimental) is included as a solo with piano accompaniment for Jesus after "We Beseech You" which it replaced in the film version. The musical then moves quickly to The Crucifixion ("On the Willows") and Jesus being carried from the cross to the words and music of "Prepare Ye, the Way of the Lord (Long Live God, Long Live God)." There is no reprise of Day by Day at the curtain call.

The enthusiasm and high spirits of the youthful cast are a definite plus. The voices are strong, although the high amplification employed for the small cast and orchestra make them sound strident and blur the lyrics. Over the years (and this was confirmed to me by a high source) the varying quality of sound at Paper Mill has been related to the success of the sound designer on a particular production. Hopefully, the sound for Godspell will continue to be fine tuned.

Dan Kohler is a sweet voiced, good looking Jesus, but there is little modulation in his performance. Not a major problem here. Joshua Henry brings an appropriate intensity and strong voice to his Judas. I was especially impressed with the singing of Telly Leung and Uzo Aduba, and the spunk of Julie Reiber. You can pick out your own favorites from the balance of the cast, all of whom make helpful contributions. Alphabetically, they are Sarah Bolt, Sara Chase, Robin de Jesus, Patrick Heusinger, Anika Larsen, and Kasey Marino.

The choreography by Dan Knechtges is exuberant and routine, kind of par for the course for Godspell. The set by David Korins (with effective lighting by Ben Stanton) gets the job done. No more, no less. One problem that producer Michael Gennaro is facing is that veteran Paper Mill audiences expect more. A major contribution is made by Miranda Hoffman with her felicitous costumes and whimsical and effective mask and puppet design.

The six-piece orchestra sounds very thin in the large playhouse. Amping up the volume does not compensate. Obviously, the orchestrations were designed for smaller capacity theatres. Although I must say that visual clues may have played a role here. I could only see two musicians on stage (to the rear, stage right), and this caused me to focus on "obvious" synthesizer sounds. The stage was built out over the orchestra pit, bringing the show which was played way down front closer to the audience. There is a hip hop arrangement early on, but, for the most part, the arrangements sounded as if they were the originals (I'm certain that my readers will correct if I am mistaken about this).

For all those interested in seeing Godspell, the Paper Mill Playhouse and director Daniel Goldstein have provided a Godspell definitely worth their time and attention. Individual ticket sales should be quite brisk.

Godspell will continue performances (Wed., Thurs., Sun. 7:30 p.m./ Fri., Sat. 8 p.m./ Thurs., Sat., Sun. 2 p.m.) through October 22 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.

Godspell based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew/ Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak/ Music and New Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz ("By My Side", Music by Peggy Gordon/ Lyrics by Jay Hamburger), directed by Michael Goldstein

Cast (in alphabetical order): Uzo Aduba; Sarah Bolt; Sara Chase; Robin de Jesus, Joshua Henry (Judas/ John the Baptist); Patrick Heusinger; Dan Kohler (Jesus); Anika Larsen; Telly Leung; Julie Reiber.


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- Bob Rendell



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