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THERE'S lots of jumping around in Godspell--lots of energy and exuberance. As the show builds up momentum, the house seems to rock with excitement and vibration. By the end, the entire audience is standing and singing, clapping hands to the musical curtain call. This is an inspiring evening of theater--to the religiously devout or merely to devotees of good theater.
Writers Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebela stitched this musical together by taking scenes from Jesus' life and Biblical parables and stringing them together with modern connotations and references to current events. The cast of nine, seven followers. John the Baptist, and Christ, perform each scene, racing through interpretations of Christ's teachings with hardly a breath in between. The roles of the disciples, though loosely defined, make up a chorus. The fast pace, rhythmic folk-rock arrangements and wide amplitude of the dance movement create an atmosphere of joyous anticipation. Each song builds to this climax and a break from the rapid-fire skits, but the mood changes drastically near the end of the second act, during the period of persecution and crucifixion.
The cast makes the transition smoothly, expressing its shock and despair at the prospect of its leader's death with equal conviction to that of its previous jubilation. In a brilliantly staged scene, the hanging on the cross is reenacted with the disciples tearfully watching and, ironically, helping to hang Christ (Allen Gifford) on a cleverly designed cross. Gifford really appears to swing from the structure, and the image is frighteningly effective as he calls out for help, "Father, I am dying!." swaying tenuously up near the ceiling. After his death, silence fills the theater until, resuming and even surpassing its former level of energy, the dancers briefly celebrate his resurrection.
THE VISUAL EFFECT of the show adds to the impact of the action: bright costumes and wild makeup light up against the dual stages at each end of the room. A wide strip through the middle joins the stages; it dips down to the level of the audience, in contrast to the high stairs at one end of the room, on which speakers occasionally tower above the spectators. The stage itself, papered with newspaper clippings, a yellow border and stripes, is surrounded by heavy chain fencing hanging down aside parts of the stage. Aside from a few small platforms that vary the levels of the actors, director Kathy Teague uses few props, and they are not necessary, for the production really stands or falls on the ability of the performers in the dances and sustained skits.
And Teague has been fortunate indeed in her casting. The singing, dancing and acting remain consistently excellent from beginning to end. Each song requires a tremendous amount of stamina and, aside from solos, requires the participation of the entire cast. In an outstanding number. Thania Papas, dressed in a short, loose, black dress, works her way down a staircase and across the stage in a vamped-up version of "Turn Back, O Man," teasing males in the audience with laudable professionalism. The rest of the cast joins her to finish the song, working up to a near-frenzy by the finale. But the energy level was no greater in this song than in the rest, and considering that it was the tenth song of the show, and only the start of the last half, it is all the more remarkable.
Teague manages to maintain a light and joyous tone in Godspell, avoiding heavy-handed moralizing or cloying sentimentalisation of the religious message. The theatrical truth of the musical, which is also a religious one, is the sensibility and exaltation that results from careful following of Biblical doctrines. From the point of view of Christian believers, the work is a reaffirmation of the validity of the underlying message of the Christian God; for those of other faiths and non-believers, the message carries similar, although more measured, validity. Teague has gone out of her way to add references and touches that attempt to include Jews among the believers to whom the musical appeals (as much as any about the life of Christ can), having Gifford speak a benediction in Hebrew, for instance.
Aside from the suspense surrounding Christ's betrayal, little dramatic tension sustains the show, Plot and development are almost irrelevant; character development remains minimal; interaction between the people on stage never sun passes a superficial level. But their portrayals represent everyman and everywoman. Any other play or musical would have a tough time filling an evening of theater with such nebulous stuff as joyousness, exhuberance and religious excitement, but Godspell has the requisite level of professionalism to carry it off, and carry it off well.
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