Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Godspell
Olney Theatre Center

Also see Susan's review of Dunsinane


The Cast
Godspell may have originated in the hippie era of the early 1970s but the production bursting forth at the Olney Theatre Center north of Washington is anything but dated. Director Jason King Jones and a prodigiously talented cast reveal the anarchic joy in John-Michael Tebelak's adaptation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew and Stephen Schwartz's tuneful, reverent (but not overly reverent) songs.

Where the original production of Godspell depicted Jesus and his followers as a troupe of hippie clowns in a roughly urban setting (the 1973 film version uses New York City locations), Jones and his designers have taken their inspiration from the annual Burning Man festival, where strangers build an ephemeral community in the desert and destroy it when the festival ends. The brightly dressed performers (costumes designed by Ivania Stack) enter individually, gather at the appearance of John the Baptist (Rachel Zampelli, who doubles as Judas), and learn the lessons of Jesus (Jordan Coughtry) through sketch comedy, song, dance, and mime. Warning: the staging includes some good-natured audience participation.

The show has always relied on pop culture in its retelling of what could be called Jesus' greatest hits: the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Sermon on the Mount. This production mixes classic references (old television shows never die) with the unavoidably current.

Coughtry, conventionally handsome and bearded, is a benign leader; even when his Jesus rails against hypocrites and false teachings, his underlying warmth remains evident. The casting of a woman as John the Baptist may seem like a stunt, but Zampelli is a powerful singer who avoids cynicism even in her vaudeville-style duet with Coughtry, "All for the Best."

The entire ensemble shines, but Helen Hayes Award recipient Nova Y. Payton gets the biggest moment with "Turn Back, O Man."

Paige A. Hathaway's spare scenic design includes a scaffold, a hanging piece of canvas painted with the word "Lost?", a water pump, a 1960s transistor radio, and a short stretch of highway—until the group coalesces and the magic begins to happen. (Sonya Dowhaluk's lighting design plays an important part in the transformation.)

Olney Theatre Center
Godspell
February 4th - March 1st, 2015
Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak
Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew
Jesus: Jordan Coughtry
Judas/John: Rachel Zampelli
Ensemble: Kurt Boehm, Maggie Donnelly, Michael J. Mainwaring, Calvin McCullough, Christopher Mueller, Allie Parris, Nova Y. Payton, Emily Zickler Directed by Jason King Jones
Musical director: Christopher Youstra
Choreographer: Bryan Knowlton
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
Olney, MD
Ticket Information: 301-924-3400 or www.olneytheatre.org


Photo: Stan Barouh


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