Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of White Christmas
Even for a seasoned theatergoer, it can be awe-inspiring to witness the wealth of talent on display in certain shows. The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) recently finished a production of Guys and Dolls that boasted a large cast of over forty, yet there were still uber-talented students left to concurrently populate their Studio Series production of Godspell. This production includes creativity, heart, and glorious singing throughout.
Godspell is the loose retelling of several major events in the ministry of Jesus, along with showcasing many of his parables. The show is primary based on the Gospel of Matthew, though some portions come from other books from the New Testament. Godspell in its current form premiered Off-Broadway in 1971.
The book by John-Michael Tebelak, who also conceived the show, includes the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, the Last Supper, Jesus' betrayal by Judas, and his crucifixion. However, most of the show is devoted to the retelling of the parables that Jesus shared during his ministry. The book is structured to allow for a great deal of creativity and flexibility in staging and design, and provides opportunities for a great deal of humor, as well as dramatic intensity.
Stephen Schwartz' songs are varied stylistically, with folk, pop, traditional hymns, gospel, and other influences contained in the melodies. Schwartz based many of his lyrics on existing hymns or biblical references. "Day by Day" was a hit from the show, and remains well-known today outside of theater circles. "All Good Gifts" is a beautiful ballad and "All For the Best" is a vaudeville style duet for John/Judas and Jesus.
At CCM, director and choreographer Katie Johannigman infuses energy at every opportunity and includes a number of creative moments, including an extremely effective large puppet representing the Pharisees in the scene leading up to "Alas, For You." She doesn't use the clown motif often employed, but it isn't missed, and both the humor and heart of the show come through clearly. Ms. Johannigman's choreography is excellent, using the small performance space efficiently. Stephen Goers leads a superb-sounding four-piece band.
During the opening number, it's apparent that this is a cast of very skilled vocalists. The wall of sound that is created when they are all singing is impressive. For this production, Jesus is played by a female. Madison Deadman is delightful, showing off a rich vocal sound, commanding stage presence, and nuanced acting choices. As John the Baptist/Judas, Madison Adams Hagler (another Madison, but a male in this case) is direct and varied in his dual identities within the show. All ten of the cast members shine as they take advantage of both acting and singing opportunities. Jenny Mollet (a soulful "O, Bless the Lord"), Jack Brewer (a soaring and heartfelt "All Good Gifts"), Delaney Guyer (a tender "Day By Day"), and Camila Paquet (leading a heartbreaking "By My Side" and conveying much through facial expressions) are praiseworthy. Bryce Baxter (turning in a hilarious, over-the-top gender-bending take on "Turn Back, O Man") and Madelaine Vandenberg (a fierce, gospel-tinged "Learn Your Lessons Well") likewise deserve kudos, and both Dylan Mulvaney ("Light of the World") and John Collins ("We Beseech Thee") supply humor and great imitations in first-rate turns.
For being a studio production, CCM's Godspell is strikingly designed. This production is set in a closed-off lot undergoing construction next to a Catholic high school (humorously named St. Matthew's High School). Set designer Joshua E. Gallagher has created a remarkable, multiple-level façade for the school, and includes scaffolding, fencing, and a hydraulic lift befitting the construction site. The lighting by Frank J. Viskup is stark and varied in technical approach, color and intensity. The costumes are well suited as supplied by Rachel Boylan, and the sound by Hankyu Lee couldn't be clearer.
Godspell is a frequently produced musical, but you're unlikely to ever hear it sung as splendidly as it is in this CCM production. The talented performers, along with detailed direction, wonderful dances, and solid design, make this mounting a memorable one.
Godspell, through November 10, 2018, at The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, 290 CCM Blvd, Cincinnati OH. For more information, visit www.ccm.uc.edu.