Daniel Smith, Tony Smith, & Megan Adair in Godspell. Photo: Nik Vechery heavychronicles
Conceived & originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak
Music & new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Brian Gligor
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Godspell is arguably the most upbeat telling of the story of Jesus ever told. Based primarily on The Gospel of St. Matthew, it originated as a graduate thesis project at Carnegie Mellon University before transferring to off-Broadway and famous productions around the world including in Toronto where a cast of locals featured then-unknowns Victor Garber, who starred in the film adaptation, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Martin Short (SCTV), Gilda Radner (Saturday Night Live), Paul Schafer (The Late Show with David Letterman) as music director and Howard Shore, who went on to become an Oscar-winning film composer (Lord of the Rings) on saxophone.
Pandora Productions is not reaching back that far but is working from the 2012 revival that included an updated script and lyrics that emphasize LGBTQA+ representation. For good measure, they have thrown in more topical references: Free Brittany, Kentucky Bill SB 115, The Matrix.
The aesthetic discards the hippie flower-child look that is still attached to most people’s memories of Godspell, choosing more simple, utilitarian, and casual jeans and white shirt uniformity. The opening number. “Tower of Babble”, is played out using a series of cell phone videos of celebrities who rank as Gay icons (all played by the ensemble): Dolly Parton, Tim Gunn, Liza Minelli, and Natasha Lyonne among them, before “Prepare Ye” introduces John the Baptist (Marianne Zickuhr) and Jesus (Tony Smith) and each member of the ensemble is baptized with red ribbons and rainbow cloths.
The narrative is a series of parables and musical numbers, including the classic “Day By Day” all presented with a degree of childish naivete consistent with Godspelll tradition but instead of flower children, the group is a melange of gender identity and queer expression. It underscores the simple humanity in the moral lessons shared by the central figure (Smith) that we all know to be Jesus even if the name is never spoken. More often they are called Rabbi.
I have always loved this show, dating back to when I was still attending church in the mandatory fashion of family observance. As an adult agnostic Godspell still works for me because the moral precepts spoken by the man Jesus of Nazareth make sense as Humanist philosophy. Godspell doesn’t overtly include the confirmation of the divine in Jesus that is the resurrection, although I imagine that the Finale and Bows can be taken that way if you require it.
That divinity has always been a point of division throughout history, but I don’t mean to begin a theological lecture here. Suffice it to say that I see Godspell as focused on the Rabbi as a teacher, delivering understanding about human relationships more than the Kingdom of Heaven, and how people should live together with respect, kindness, and love during their time on earth. This is always a worthwhile message but never more than at a time when so much of the opposite behavior dominates our understanding of the world.
Brian Gilgor’s production opens the Henry Clay space to expose all of the backstage corners and storage that are normally hidden from the audience. It announces that this will be an inclusive story told honestly, and they follow that notion with soft openings for both acts one and two (Kermit’s theme song, “The Rainbow Connection” is included easing out of intermission), the ensemble engaging with the entering audience relaxed and openly, and keeping that notion of audience interaction throughout the evening with movement in every nook and cranny of that exposed space (choreography by Kevin Moore).
Tony Smith makes for a fine and humble leader, and the show gives each ensemble member a moment or two in the spotlight. Clarity Hagan plays electric guitar (is there anything this multi-hyphenate can’t do), Trent Everett Byer shares a powerful singing voice, as does Marianne Zickuhr with “Prepare Ye” which demands no less. New arrangements and gender flipping serve some of the songs well; Daniel Riddelesmith shifts the formally female burlesque of “Turn Back, O Man” into a dark and moody challenge, and “Beautiful City”, written for the film adaptation to earn Oscar qualification, gains meaning placed within The Last Supper, here staged with simple grace through the unfolding of a length of purple cloth. By this time we have arrived at the betrayal by Judas, and Megan Adair plays the simple, chilling moment with icy clarity.
There were several strong voices and a few that needed the wireless microphones worn by all. There were some moments of static from that system but my biggest complaint was that I longed for the volume to be boosted on all of the vocals. The fine band was situated behind and above the action and did not overwhelm the singing, but the full impact of the talented ensemble was not fully realized by a volume setting that sometimes had me wondering if the system was working properly.
To be offended by the inclusion is to be frankly prejudiced, a degree of hate that runs counter to the character of Jesus we encounter in much of the four gospels but is reinforced by sections of the Old Testament, a conflict that is difficult to resolve and is often a bedrock criticism of the Bible. It contains both the gospel of judgment and the gospel of love. There has never been any confusion about which side of the question Godspell rests on.
Featuring Megan Adair, Kate Holland Ballowe, Trent Everett Byers, Ashley Drury, Clarity Hagan, Daniel Riddlesmith, Phillip Rivera, Gerry Robertson, Tony Smith, Rebecca Worthington, & Marianne Zickuhr.
Band: Nina Espinueva, Joe Gomez, Jaylin Noelle, Andy Spoonamore-Guillion
March 10, 11, 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25 @ 7:30 pm
March 12 @ 2:30 pm
March 19 @ 5:30 pm
March 20 @ 7:00 pm.
The Henry Clay Theater
604 S. Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.