Reviewed by George Basler
In staging Godspell, co-director Ann Szymaniak wanted to put forth a message of love, acceptance and hope that “our fast-paced cynical society needs to hear.”
On a less spiritual level, the musical, which has been around for 42 years now, is an opportune chance for younger performers to try out their singing and acting skills in a zestful show that requires youthful exuberance to make it work.
Both spirituality and this exuberance are on display in the SRO Productions III’s presentation of the show that runs this weekend and next weekend in the ballroom of the Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton.
While Godspell’s mixture of solemnity and hippy-dippy cuteness might not be to everyone’s taste, the SRO production is first-rate with an energetic and talented cast, ranging in age from 25 to 15, showing off the fact that there are a lot of talented young people in Broome County.
Godspell started as a master’s thesis by its author, John-Michael Tebelak, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Tebelak basically put together a series of parables, based on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, with the cast performing in clown-like costumes and using vaudeville shtick to get the points across.
Songs were added by Stephen Schwartz, who went on to compose the music for Pippin and Wicked, the latter of which is still going strong on Broadway.
The show was a major hit after it opened off-Broadway in 1971, back in the days of the “flower power generation,” and has become a staple of touring companies and revivals. Still, it has its critics. When the show first opened, some found it blasphemous. That’s a criticism I don’t agree with at all, although admittedly I’m far from a Biblical scholar.
On a different level, other critics have found the musical cloying because of its hippy-dippy tone. To my mind, the SRO staging avoids this pitfall. While featuring the required perkiness and slapstick humor, the Roberson production had real emotional resonance for me, and that’s something I did not expect.
Credit for this goes to Szymaniak and co-director Scott Fisher who successfully shift the tone from breeziness to more solemnity in the second act. There is real emotional feeling in the staging of the crucifixion and Last Supper scenes when Jesus bids farewell to his Apostles. At the same time, the shift is not jarring, preachy or proselytizing in any way.
Szymaniak and Fisher also made the wise decision to stage Godspell in the round, which makes skillful use of the intimate space of the Roberson ballroom. And they deserve credit for not letting the zestfulness and broad humor of the show descend into frenetic gimmickry and over-the-top mugging. This is a stripped-down version of the show, and all the better for it.
A second major strong point of the show is the talented cast. They are funny and exuberant without seeming like a bunch of kids at summer camp who have ingested too many high-energy drinks.
All 10 members sing well and do a fine job with Schwartz’s songs which I still find infectious after all these years. (That being said, I wonder if today’s young people will find the songs a bit pallid after being raised on the more aggressive sounds of urban hip-hop, punk, techno and alternative rock.)
In any production of Godspell, the standout role of course is Jesus. SRO benefits from a strong performance by Andrew Simek. His Jesus shows real indignation at times and a sense of foreboding and realization about his fate. This is especially true in the song, “Alas for You,” which is inventively staged with some of the actors wearing masks as the Pharisees.
The upbeat songs got the most enthusiastic responses at the performance I attended. But, for me, the best moments are the more quiet songs. Especially good was the performance of “By My Side,” with Megan Germond taking the lead vocal. The song was written by Peggy Gordon and Jay Hamburger, not by Schwartz, and is arguably the best in the show, although “Day by Day” was the big hit when it first came out.
Another highlight is the performance of “Beautiful City,” first by Simek and the by the full cast at the end of the show. The song was not part of the original stage production but was added later for the film and then re-written in 1993 in the wake of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The song encapsulates the show’s main message and was excellently staged in the SRO production.
As I said above, the entire case is solid. All deserved the standing ovation they got on opening night. Besides Simek and Germond, they are Josh Smith, Alexander Boyce, Annie Fabiano, Katie Glasgow, Lauren Kovacic, Mike Meaney, Matt Milewski and Anna Simek.
While I enjoyed the show, I have some quibbles. The prologue before the main action is deadly dull and goes on far too long. The first part of the show was also a bit too preachy for my tastes.
All and all, Godspell is hardly a profound show, but it carries a strong moral message. Still, I suspect much of its appeal has to do more with the fact that it’s an exercise in theatricality, not religious faith.
I hope people don’t find this comparison offensive, but watching the show made me think of the old bread advertisement, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Jewish rye.” You don’t have to be Christian to like Godspell.
IF YOU GO: Godspell will be performed at 8 p.m. today (Jan. 19) and Jan. 25 and 26 and 2 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 20) and Jan. 27. All performances are in the mansion of the Roberson Museum and Science Center, 30 Front St., Binghamton. Tickets at $20 ($18 for students and seniors) can be purchased through sroproductionsonline.com or by calling (800) 838-3006.