I first saw Godspell twenty years ago; I was in high school in Ashland, KY, and it was a community college production so awful that I was turned off from seeing any theatre for years. The lyrics were drowned out by the music, the actors ran through the aisles of the auditorium in an effort to engage the audience, and I couldn’t follow what was going on at all. Ever since then, even though I now love musical theatre and particularly the works of Stephen Schwartz, the mention of Godspell is enough to make me groan. All of this leads me to Dare to Defy Productions and their staging of this show now running in Dayton, and I figured it was time to give it another chance.
Godspell premiered off-Broadway in 1971, ran five years, then transferred to Broadway and ran well over another year. With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by John Michael Tebelak, the show is comprised of Bible stories from the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, each with some lesson to impart as guided by Jesus to his flock of hippies (depending on the production). The show spawned an average film adaptation in 1973 and a hit single (“Day by Day”), and it has gone on to be a popular property in community theatres across the country. It is predated chronologically ever so slightly by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, another rock/Broadway interpretation of The Bible with a score close to my heart. Is it possible to like both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar? If I were to pick one, it’s definitely the latter, no question. Still, Dare to Defy’s production has some very good qualities for fans of Godspell.
Director Becki Norgaard guides a lively, diverse, and vocally gifted cast around the intimate performing space of the Mathile Theatre, assisted by a terrific band and sound design. If there was ever a production that could help me see more of the joy within Godspell, this is it. The show moves quickly, running just around two hours with an intermission, and there are humorous moments when the cast engages some audience members in the action. I’m not quite sure why M&M’s and wine are served at the last supper, but why not? There is a funky vibe to this production that is welcoming, even if it doesn’t make me a believer in the material.
So charismatic and honest is Bobby Mitchum as Jesus that I didn’t recognize him from his role as Cinderella’s Prince in Dare to Defy’s Into the Woods just last month! It’s not that he looked so completely different or anything (though he is one of those rare guys that can pull off wearing white jeans); it’s that his energy is transformative, a far cry from the haughty and spoiled part he played in the other show. The fact that Mr. Mitchum is so good in both quite different roles goes to demonstrate his versatility.
Kudos are also due to Tia Seay as a member of the ensemble, careful to blend in through much of the first act before pulverizing everyone with her solo; then Ms. Seay gracefully steps aside to make sure her cast mates each get their moments to shine as well. Grant Warden in the ensemble also stood out to me in “Light of the World,” his big act one closing number. Mr. Warden is open to being as goofy and unabashedly joyous as the song requires, not letting his matinee idol looks get in the way.
Did this production revise my opinion of Godspell? Well, no, it didn’t, even though the cast is energetic and the plot more discernible to me now than it was on my last experience with the show. I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t like the music or the play, but that’s no fault of the talented performers in this production (I can’t say the same of the one I saw in high school). There is a preachy component in the material that doesn’t work for me, but that is the same element that the friend I attended this production with appreciated and enjoyed. She also saw and liked the 2011 Broadway revival. The audience was really into Dare to Defy’s production, and they were quick to give a standing ovation as soon as the lights came on. I can recognize that this is a beloved musical and that this production has a talented cast, but Godspell just isn’t for me.
If you like the play and music: *** out of ****
If, like me, you don’t like the play or music: ** out of ****
Godspell continues through to October 24th in the Mathile Theatre at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center located on West 2nd Street in downtown Dayton (about an hour outside of Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.d2defy.com/godspell-flyer/