‘New’ ‘Godspell’ preaches dated musical formula
Of all the books of the New Testament, the Gospel According to St. Matthew, with its many parables, likely is the most quoted.
You know, it starts with all those “begets” — some 40 of them once Abraham begat Isaac — and goes on to the many “blesseds” (“Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven,” etc.).
In 1972, director and writer John-Michael Tebelak and composer Stephen Schwartz found the gospel a fitting theme for a stage musical named “Godspell.”
In the Golden Age of rock biblical musicals, they turned “Godspell” into a hit on Broadway where it ran for some 2,600 performances. The film version was released in 1973.
But then except for school and community group productions, “Godspell” lay mostly dormant for a long spell.
Finally, two years ago “Godspell” was reworked for the professional stage and is at Theatre at the Center in Munster to Oct. 20.
Under Stacey Flaster’s direction and choreography, “Godspell” follows a contemporary Jesus Christ as he transforms the timeless parables into teaching moments for his 12 disciples.
The parables are presented in songs of varying genres — rock, gospel, country and folk — and are performed by an energetic, youthful and multitalented cast that also provides some of its own instrumentation to supplement Theatre at the Center’s terrific orchestra directed by Bill Underwood.
Some of the songs were hits in their day, especially “Day by Day,” which reached No. 13 and ran 14 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 list.
Flaster conducted open auditions to gain a fresh cast, led by Liam Quealy as Jesus Christ and Jim DeSelm as Judas/John the Baptist. In keeping with the contemporary theme, ensemble members are known by their real first names.
Hillary Marren, for example, who beautifully sings “Day by Day,” is simply Hillary. Then there are Landree Fleming, Alexis J. Rogers, Rose LeTran, George Keating, Kathleen Gibson, Matt Deitchman, Merrick Robinson, Lauren Paris and David Hathaway.
The original Broadway production was set on the streets of New York; here it’s a tropical setting with everyone attired in jeans or shorts.
Quealy is a real twist on Jesus. With a face with hardly peach fuzz, he comes on as a bushy-haired surfer dude, but he and the cast can be both exuberant rockers and serious balladeers.
The trouble with the “new” “Godspell” is that without much dialogue and mostly corny humor, the two-hour show is overlong.
Similar rock musical shows of the early 1970s that often have been reprised — “Hair,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” — have far more compelling narratives and music overall.
There’s a reason why “Godspell” got left behind.
Don Snider is a local freelance writer.