Like Jesus Christ Superstar or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Godspell is a musical with a book inspired by the Good Book. Because of that content and the quality of its score by Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz, Godspell is one of those enduring shows that can speak to audiences born long after its Off-Broadway debut in 1971.
Actors’ Playhouse, which first tackled Godspell in 1990, is revisiting the musical as the kickoff production of the theater’s 25th anniversary season. In addition to Biblical content largely based on the Gospel According to Matthew, the musical (which was revived on Broadway last season) stays current with tweaked topical references. In the new edition at Coral Gables’ Miracle Theatre, director David Arisco and company give us nods to the Kardashians, Lindsay Lohan, Wicked, Carrie Underwood’s Jesus Take the Wheel, Donald Trump and Celebrity Apprentice – well, you get the picture.
Arisco’s smartest move in the new Godspell lies in his casting. His 10 singer-actors have terrific voices. Each gets some solo time, and the voices (backed by hidden but fine five-piece band) blend with beauty and power. The joy in this Godspell comes from its musical numbers.
The acting out of Jesus’ parables, however, is another story. Born as a college masters’ thesis project by John-Michael Tebelak, Godspell has always been powered by youthful exuberance sometimes bordering on silliness. Arisco’s actors are a mix of young and seasoned performers, but the director doesn’t let them linger at that border. He frequently pushes them into full-on cheesy goofiness. One of many examples: As John the Baptist, Nick Duckart gives Josh Canfield’s Jesus a sponge bath to “baptize” him, and when Jesus returns the favor, Duckart giggles as the sponge tickles his armpit. More than once, Arisco takes playful or cute moments and pushes them in goofy, corny or ridiculous directions.
But the cast members, bless ‘em, commit 100 percent to the tone and style of the show, here set in a post-apocalyptic American city. Designer Gene Seyffer supplies boarded-up buildings, a mini-water tower (whose contents are utilized in that sponge bath), and a pair of runways so that the cast can get up close and personal with the folks in the front of the orchestra section. Heaven help you if you hate audience participation and happen to get one of those seats.
Ellis Tillman supplies the whimsical, circus-flavored costumes. Patrick Tennent’s lighting design is effective, though he sometimes bathes poor Duckart in bloody red for the actor’s other role as Judas – yeah, we get it. The ever-inventive choreographer Barbara Flaten and sound designer Alexander Herrin are also key players in this revival.
The treasures of this Godspell, the moments that will stick with you as you leave the theater, are its vocal performances. Canfield delivers a glorious Beautiful City, Duckart a rousing Prepare Ye (The Way of the Lord), and the two join for a light-hearted song-and-dance version of All for the Best. Henry Gainza delivers an exquisite All Good Gifts, and he brings a comic sabor cubano to his scenes. Heather Kopp sings a sweet, yearning version of the show’s hit song, Day by Day, and blends beautifully with Jeni Hacker on the By My Side duet. The equally powerful Kareema Khouri, Cindy Pearce and Don Seward, along with an alluring Shea Hess and a funny Clay Cartland, round out the cast.
Plucked from a quarter century of shows, the new Godspell is neither the best nor worst example of the artistic product Actors’ Playhouse offers its audiences. Not for the first time, the scenes are too eager to please, while the music does just that.