I think that the last time I saw a production of Godspell it had only been a few years since its premiere. If that is true for you as well, don’t worry: no one has messed with the show you loved all those years ago. Well, in most ways, anyway. The songs are still the same, the/ performer playing Jesus still speaks in parables, and the other cast members have the best time of their lives as they clown around, dance, set up bits, and generally make these New Testament stories come alive in (mostly) comical and uplifting ways. They may not tell the stories in the same way they did in the 70s, and Jesus may not be wearing Superman’s “S” anymore, but this (again, mostly) joyful retelling of the Gospel of Matthew will still make you feel good, whether or not you are Christian.
The basic concept has not changed much: John Michael Tebelak’s 1971 structure is still here (along with the additional music and lyrics that Stephen Schwartz added later. Much of the stuff that illustrates the parables depend upon the silliness and imagination of the troupe of actors (and the director’s vision of the production). Fortunately, Christopher Pazdernik and his cast are very imaginative, very funny, and very silly. Throughout the whole of Act One, which focuses on Jesus’s teachings, the cast gets to goof around, make jokes, take on roles like the Good Samaritan or the beggar Lazarus, and make the audience both think and laugh.
Adding to the laughter-making is Jenna Schoppe’s inventive (and often uproarious) choreography, which every one of these talented performers dances with joy, passion, and professionalism. On opening night, when I saw the show, an understudy (Chamaya Moody) was inserted into the production just before things started—I watched as they walked her through some of the movement—and she blended in perfectly. Yes, this is a shoutout to understudies and swings, a la the Tonys, but the point here is that everyone is needed to make an ensemble work, and everyone in this particular ensemble is utterly committed to it.
Leading the cast is Austin Nelson, Jr. as Jesus. Nelson, who (like the rest of the cast) is called by his actual first name throughout the show in a conceit begun a half-century ago by Tebelak that gives the whole thing a “regular folks putting on a play” feel, does not need that “S” on this shirt to stand out. He has the kind of presence that a “Jesus” ought to have, the ability to command attention as he bends the crowd to see things as he wishes them to. His smooth singing voice practically glides out of his throat in songs like “Beautiful City,” yet he can also make it a weapon as in “Alas For You”; it’s easy to see why people would want to follow him. He’s also very capable of having fun: his Jesus has a damn (sorry) good time here as he teaches.
If there is a second lead—and there really isn’t, as this really is an ensemble—it would have to be Anna Marie Abbate, who has the showy roles of John the Baptist and Judas Iscariot. The show opens with a number called “Tower of Babel,” which many people will not know even though it has been part of the show since the beginning. In it, the other cast members assume the roles of famous philosophers from Socrates to L. Ron Hubbard and try to compete for attention, soapbox style, until their overlapping shouting is at last brought to a stop with Abbate’s “Prepare Ye.” It’s a powerful opening, highlighting Jesus’ standing as the messiah—or at least the preeminent philosopher of the Western world. “John” confiscates the props used by the rest (including a copy of Hubbard’s Scientology book) and makes a show of tossing each into a trash can like the “false gods” that they are.
I could give a full paragraph to each member of this cast, but that would get far too long. (There are ten of them plus a group of pit singers.) Still, every one of them contributes in a huge way to making the show work, whether it is Izzy Jones’ beautifully sincere lead on “Day by Day,” Moody’s brilliant fill-in work on the bluesy “Turn Back, Oh Man” (which is usually sung by Ashley Saul), Hannah Efsits’ and Quinn Simmons’ sweet, haunting leads on “By My Side,” Bryce Ancil’s energetic performance of “We Beseech Thee,” Laz Estrada showing off a stunningly velvet voice in “All Good Gifts,” Matthew Hunter’s easy humor throughout and powerful vocal work on “Light of the World,” or Alix Rhode switching from a sweet pop sound to driving rock and roll in “Bless the Lord.”
The second act of the show tones down the humor, for its subject matter is Jesus’ passion and death. Nelson is very emotional throughout it, whether berating the “lawyers and Pharisees,” blessing the bread for the Last Supper in Hebrew, or calling out in pain from the “cross” (a rope binding hastily set up by Abbate’s Judas, who stands in for all those who betrayed him), crying “Oh God, I’m dying” and “Oh God, I’m dead.” But as the body is carried off of the stage by the rest of the cast (with Abbate trailing forlornly behind) and the cast sings “Long Live God” with a new “Prepare Ye” as a counterpoint, something of the old joy returns. Though we don’t see the resurrection, the show definitely ends on a hopeful note.
Godspell is playing through July 31 at Theo Ubique on Howard Street.