Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Godspell is the loose retelling of several major points in the ministry of Jesus, along with showcasing many of his parables. The show is primarily based on the Gospel of Matthew from the New Testament, though some portions come from other gospels. The show premiered Off-Broadway in 1971 in its current form, for the most part.
The book of Godspell is credited to John-Michael Tebelak and includes the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, the Last Supper, his 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 structure of the story allows for a great deal of creativity and flexibility in staging, and provides opportunities for plenty of humor, as well as dramatic intensity.
Godspell had several productions before songwriter Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin) was brought in to rescore the show. His songs are varied stylistically, with folk, pop, traditional hymns, gospel, and other influences present. Schwartz based many of his lyrics on existing hymns or biblical references. "Day by Day" was a hit from the show, and it 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. Several additions to the score have been made since its premiere, including the opening "Tower of Babble" and the plaintive "Beautiful City." One song not by Schwartz, "By My Side", which was written for the original version of the show, has been wisely retained.
At La Comedia, director and choreographer Chris Beiser has his actors in almost constant movement and includes many creative and humorous moments. He doesn't use the clown motif often employed for the show, but it isn't missed, and both the tender and painful moments of the show come through clearly. The opening prologue is a difficult piece to stage, and if this version doesn't completely conquer the challenges inherent to it, the rest of the show is clearly communicated. Mr. Beiser's choreography is active, appropriate to the material, and a highlight of the production. Steve Goers supplies new and effective orchestrations.
The cast is somewhat uneven in their performances. Montana Iverson brings warmth and an easygoing yet strong stage presence as Jesus, and sings very well. Desmond Thomas supplies exemplary vocals as John the Baptist/Judas, and especially excels with "On The Willows," a song not usually assigned to his roles. Among the ensemble, Bridget Lorenz impresses vocally on "Bless The Lord," Katie-Lee Sutherland brings sass and professionalism throughout, and Averi Turner delivers a pleasant and wistful "Day by Day." The choral work during the opening number and a few other spots was a bit rough on press night, and a few of the performers are singing material that sounds outside of their comfortable vocal ranges. The cast does a solid job with the dances and in capturing the right tone for the piece.
The flexibility of staging Godspell allows for the piece to be set in almost any location, and recent local productions have presented the show in a circus tent, at a women's shelter, and at a Catholic school playground. At La Comedia, the action is set at a homeless encampment. Skip Badonsky's a multi-level unit set shows an abandoned urban building blighted by graffiti and trash. The costumes by Emercita Erb and Ashley Jo Simpson assign a specific color to each character and are in styles from the 1970s and 1980s.
Godspell is an often-produced musical, but the ability to stage it differently means that you'll never encounter the same show twice. With its core audience being suburban and rural audiences, which often includes groups from churches, it is a perfect offering for La Comedia. Though not a perfect mounting, this production boasts some strong performances and is likely to please most audience members.
NOTE: La Comedia doesn't currently have any mask mandate in place. The buffet dinner is provided as it was prior to COVID-19, with patrons serving themselves.
Godspell runs through February 13, 2022, at La Comedia Dinner Theatre, 765 W Central Ave, Springboro OH. For tickets and information, call 937-746-4554 or visit lacomedia.com.