Music and Lyrics by: Stephen Schwartz
Book by: John-Michael Tebelak
Directed by: Tim Gregory
Music Direction by: Alaric Rokko Jans
Uneven Story-Telling Saved by Strong Musical Performances.
Godspell is a show that most everyone has seen or, at the very least, listened to the soundtrack. Somehow I have lived under a rock for my theatrical career, having only heard a few musical selections from this groundbreaking show and never seeing a production until venturing down to Provision Theater Sunday afternoon. Considering the catchiness of the music and the timelessness of the lessons, I can see why this show has been around for so long. However, I found this production to be a tale of two shows because the first act was musically strong but uneven with storytelling, while everything in the second act clicked and led to a satisfying conclusion. It was a performance that left me with a series of mixed emotions.
The show is based on the parables from the Gospel of St. Matthew (and some from St. Luke) interspersed with modern music set mostly to the lyrics from traditional hymns. The show begins with a group of twenty-somethings (Tiffany Yvonne Cox, Maxwell Burnham, Greg Foster, Sarah Grant, Frederick Harris, Richelle Meiss, Kevin O’Brien, Jennifer Oakley, Amy Steele) stumbling into an old warehouse to escape a heavy downpour. Once inside they begin to leaf through the old crates and come across a Bible that once opened brings forth John the Baptist (Justin Berkobien) and Jesus (Syler Thomas) to the tune “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” From there the first act pours through well-known Bible stories at a vigorous pace and energy. The second act touches on a few more parables then concludes with the Passion. The play doesn’t really have a central plot or arc because it was initially written by John-Michael Tebelak in reaction to a bad experience at a church service and is meant to capture the joy of the religious experience. The joy and energy of the cast is ever present but the idea of ritual and fellowship never fully takes shape because while the audience is included, they aren’t allowed to connect.
I’m not quite sure why the beginning part was included because it is never revisited, or why everyone immediately accepts the arrival of John the Baptist and Jesus. Being a first time viewer I can not be sure if this was a directorial choice or what actually occurs in the script. Regardless, I was confused by the show starting in reality, reverting to fantasy, and then becoming self-aware. The high-energy mood of the actors sometimes worked against them because it limited their honesty. I often felt like I was being “talked at” instead of “talked to.” At intermission the audience is encouraged to dance and share in juice onstage, like communion, and many people seemed hesitant to participate. Many of the parables are told in amusing ways, such as the use of puppetry for “The Good Samaritan,” and a brief homage to Speed Racer. However, the lack of connection made the dialogue sections very hit and miss and leaving me waiting for the next musical number.
Where this production shines most is the musical numbers because the cast is vocally adept, bringing great power and musicality to solos and cohesive blend to the chorus. One of the more difficult aspects of a rock musical is the sound design so that the powerful instruments don’t drown the vocals and reduce it to incoherent noise. Christopher Kris deserves a big round of applause of balancing all of these elements, including the addition of a hand-held microphone for solos. I had only heard a handful of these songs before, and today I am still humming along. The sheer variety of musical style ensures that no two songs sound alike or create the same mood. The songs were reactionary to the stories, similar to a traditional service, but they still felt like separate moments. The telling of the Passion is where this production succeeds because the beautiful blend of imagery, emotion, soundscape, and music created an amazingly impactful experience. I am not a particularly religious individual and was greatly moved. This was largely due to the honest performance of Syler Thomas as Jesus, resonating a modern guru aura in his lifeguard t-shirt and capris. Same goes for Justin Berkobien as John the Baptist, or Judas at this point, who handles the betrayal with calm conflict. I would have liked to see this honesty present at other moments in the play to add an emotional level to the humor and clowning.
Director Tim Gregory keeps the play ticking along at a fervent pace, never allowing space between the stories. The amount of additional props and costumes brought on are numerous, but never interrupt the flow of the show. To take a lyric from the show that’s “All for the Best” because I could see transitions being problematic, but in Gregory’s capable hands they are seamless. The set design of Inseung Park creates a wonderfully bare atmosphere that enables the kaleidoscope lighting design of Jared Moore to accent the space. I think the strobe light may have been a bit overused in earlier sequences, but that is a minor critique on an otherwise engaging design.
I feel as though every person who sees this show will have a different reaction because the content of the show has a lot of personal connection for a lot of individuals, spiritual or otherwise. Perhaps since my background is less religious I didn’t find the stories as impactful, but for someone more devout they may resonate on a deeper level. In spite of some serious flaws in the earlier parts of the performance, this show is worth seeing for the musical numbers alone and the feeling of joy and goodwill the show promises to bring. It was an interesting first encounter, and it’s nice to finally be out from under that rock and caught up with the rest of the theatrical world.
Date of Review: 8/16/2010
For full show information, check out the Godspell page at TheatreInChicago.
At Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd, Chicago, IL 60608 . Tickets $25-28, includes free parking. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM. For Tickets call 866-811-4111 or visit www.provisiontheater.org. Running time is approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with 1 15-minute intermission. Through October 31, 2010.