REVIEW: “Godspell 2012” at The Theater Barn

Godspell is a show of my youth, and it has been scientifically proven that music you listen to during your adolescence holds a special meaning for you all your life. But while I still know all the songs by heart, it has been nearly twenty years since I have seen a production, and the show in its entirety is still stunning in its simplicity and powerful message. Seeing it the day after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a deeply emotional and spiritually moving experience.

Godspell is an older spelling of the word gospel, which means “good news.” It is based on the Gospel According to Matthew, with bits of Luke’s gospel thrown in for good measure. The librettist, John-Michael Tebelak, who created the show for his Master’s thesis project at Carnegie Mellon, had contemplated pursuing ordination. Many of the lyrics not written by composer Stephen Schwartz are taken from hymns or even older liturgical sources – “Day by Day” contains writing by the 13th-century English bishop Saint Richard of Chichester. The central character is Jesus of Nazareth, so there is no getting around the fact that Godspell is a Christian show, but the good news embodied in it is so deeply rooted in justice and peace that it transcends any one religion. All the world religions embrace the message of this show, which is about unity, not division.

At The Theater Barn, director and choreographer Trey Compton has assembled the perfect cast for this show – ten remarkably talented young men and women – who he has formed into a cohesive team. Each actor plays at least one instrument over the course of the show, after the a cappella prologue “Tower of Babble” because, in Compton’s words: “Jesus physically brings the music with him,” transmitting his message of love and acceptance through music.

To  further this concept, this Jesus (Zack Zaromatidis) is a guitarist. He is literally crucified with a guitar slung across his body – talk about the day the music died! – and at his resurrection his hands are suddenly freed to play again. Zaromatidis is a gentle Jesus, a little too vanilla for my taste, but warm and appealing and a genuinely talented musician.

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Andrew Pace plays the only other named characters – John the Baptist and Judas Iscariot. There is a strong break in mood between Act I, Jesus’ ministry, and Act II, Jesus’ passion, and Pace’s performance in the second act is indeed passionate and riveting. Judas is not necessarily the Bad Guy, but the Guy Who Took Action. The other disciples are passive, they all fall asleep, Peter betrays Jesus by denying him. Judas’ actions literally acknowledge Jesus’ power, which he believes, at least some of the time, is dangerous to society. Pace allows us to see that deep conflict clearly.

As is traditional, the rest of the cast uses their own first names as their character names, although they are clearly playing roles, not playing themselves. The entire cast is on the stage throughout the show, and each gets a solo. It would be grossly unfair to single out one or two of them for extra praise – they truly perform as an ensemble and all are excellent – but they all deserve to be named: Nolan Baker, Megan Koumis, Katie Luke, Andrew Martinelli, Katherine McLellan, Connor Wayne Milam, Paul Urriola, and Liane Zielinski.

One of the great joys at the Theater Barn is watching the talented young actors play different roles throughout the season – Luke, Milam, and Zielinski were all in Nunsense, and Pace appeared in the Barn’s first two shows this season. I have my guesses how Guys and Dolls will be cast, and I am sure you will too.

Abe Phelps has designed a simple but flexible set which leaves plenty of room for the overflowing joy of many of the numbers. The cast spray painted the backdrop themselves and there is lots to look at and treasures to find. It reminded me of the well decorated cars of the New York City Subway system in my teens, which were – Surprise! – the 1970’s.

 

In the center of the backdrop is a circle with a Chi-Rho symbol in it. I had to check with Compton to make sure it was a Chi-Rho because it is done in a different artistic style than I am used to, but it is indeed the Greek symbol of the Christogram, featuring an X and a P, the first two letters in the Greek word Christos. Originally it was used by the Romans to brand Christians, but after Augustus it has been used as a positive symbol for Christianity. Compton explained that he wanted it to look like a 60’s or 70’s rock band insignia – something that might be painted on the band’s bass drum – and he has succeeded.

The cast begins the show in 21st century hipster gear, texting endlessly on their cell phones, and then changes into more relaxed garb after heeding Jesus’ call. Jade Campell’s costumes, while contemporary, echo the 1970’s in subtle ways – fringe, crochet, a headband, long flowing skirts paired with Frye-like boots – the only thing the cast wears that we didn’t have back then are leggings (Spandex hadn’t been invented yet!) The cell phones remain though, and Allen Phelps incorporates them, and hand-held spotlights, into his lighting design on several occasions

The Barn has been raising funds over the past few years to upgrade their lighting and sound systems, and this production looks to be proof that they have achieved their goal. The performers are all miked, there are electric guitars in use, and there is actually a credited sound designer, Don Sweener. What does that all mean? Well, it is LOUD! But then rock music is supposed to be loud. There were people seated near me eyeing the size of the speaker system warily and pondering stuffing Kleenex in their ears, but as far as I could tell they didn’t feel that need and thoroughly enjoyed the show. After the initial blast of “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” I adjusted too and did not leave with ringing in my ears, as I certainly did after many musical events back in the 70’s.

I have a hard time affixing the “2012” to the title because, while I know this is an authorized new version, officially fluffed up by Schwartz, it is still Godspell to me. Like me, the show is aging. It was first performed in 1970, 47 years ago, and it probably needed a thorough updating. But whatever is new melds seamlessly with what is old. I did NOT miss the one cut number, “Alas for You,” the lyrics to which embarrassed Schwartz almost instantly, but I did miss the opportunity that song gave for Jesus to be visibly angry as he overturned the tables of the money-changers in the Temple. And “Beautiful City,” which was written for the 1972 film version, has been around plenty long enough to fit right in.

I know it has been reorchestrated, but the music, under Alan Schlichting’s direction, sounded just right to me. Unlike Jesus Christ Superstar – the rival “Jesus Musical” of 1970 – this score does not sound dated, it still brims with the exuberance and strong belief that the world can and will be changed by the current generation that was quixotically endemic to the “Hippie” movement. But looking at this young cast belting out these wonderful songs, even on August 13, 2017, I felt a surge of hope that maybe, just maybe, this generation will be the one.

Earth shall be fair, and all her people one;
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done.Clifford L. Bax, 1916

The Theater Barn presents Godspell 2012, book by John-Michael Tebelak, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and others, directed by Trey Compton. Set design by Abe Phelps, lighting design by Allen Phelps, costume design by Jade Campbell, sound design by Don Sweener, stage manager Chelsey Moore. CAST:Zack Zaromatidis as Jesus, Andrew Pace as John the Baptist and Judas Iscariot. Disciples: Nolan Baker, Megan Koumis, Katie Luke, Andrew Martinelli, Katherine McLellan, Connor Wayne Milam, Paul Urriola, and Liane Zielinski.

The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Performances at the air-conditioned Theater Barn are Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $27.00 for the evening performances and $25.00 for the Sunday matinee.  For information and reservations call (518) 794-8989.  www.theaterbarn.com

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