The musical, “Godspell,” originally conceived by John Michael Teblak, with the music and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz, is clearly a perennial in the theatre. In recent years I have had the pleasure of reviewing two satisfying productions here in Texas. The first was at Montgomery College in The Woodlands in 2001. The second was a 2006 production at Houston’s Masquerade Theatre. (Both reviews are available in the archives at www.ThePeoplesCritic.com). So it was with high hopes that I attended the Opening Night of Town Center Theatre’s current production playing at The Woodlands College Park High School. And allow me to say that if youthful energy and enthusiasm could assure success on the stage, this cast of young actors would be nothing short of brilliant. Alas, there are other matters to consider.
For those unacquainted with the light-hearted yet serious piece, it is essentially a merry retelling of the events in the life of Christ leading up to the Crucifixion. In the process there is a fun filled (and sometimes poignant) review of the parables of the Savior, along with the often delightful music and lyrics of Mr. Schwarz. This production was simply and cleverly set in the contemporary Market Square Park of The Woodlands via an effective full-stage projection of same from set/lighting designer, Gino Chelakis. Mr. Chelakis could have later added a bit more variety (in spotlighting etc.), to lend greater visual interest to the sometimes static staging. The actors, dressed in funky costumes from designer, Arlina Giles Milillo, played out their parts in front of a fine onstage band led by the musical director, Christopher Burt, on piano. Both show’s director, Joseph Milillo, and the band, get my appreciative approval because though the music has a heavy rock element, the musicians never used the loud, annoying attack volumes that are so common from many groups today. This avoided the frequent pitfall of musicians drowning out performers. There was, however, at least one crackling body microphone that would disrupt the flow from time to time.
Prior to addressing the philosophical aspects of the Christ, this performance opened with a series of actors popping up amid the audience to declare significant quotes from such philosophical luminaries as Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Gallileo, DaVinci, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Then it was on to the opener, “Tower of Babel,” which combined the fine harmonies of the cast with lyric delivery that was as unintelligible as anything that may have occurred in the Biblical story of Babel. Now in that number we may have a scriptural excuse for auditory confusion. But that brings me to a problem that pervades this “Godspell.” There was an overall concept at work here which seemed to produce a cast that believed it should be as silly and cutesy as possible all the time, talk in squeaky voices, sing as rapidly as possible without regard to clarity of enunciation, and have plenty of onstage fun with fellow cast members throughout the performance. This guiding principle resulted in a frantic, frenzied, rushed, and very noisy production that was hard to hear clearly more often than not. Staging even allowed frequent opportunities for actors to sit or stand with backs to the audience as was the case with the players sitting in a large circle for a time as though around a campfire. This would have been better staged as a semi-circle facing the paying patrons with Jesus doing likewise in the center. Another problem was the limited vocal skill of some of the young cast. While ensemble numbers from the company had better success, there were some solos that were close to painful. On two occasions I recall thinking, “I can’t bring myself to applaud at the end of this number.” Amazingly, I was not alone, as the audience sat on its hands in both instances.
Nevertheless, there were pleasant exceptions to that rule. Former Tommy Tune Award-winner, John Ryan Del Bosque, who would struggle with some later vocals, did a smooth job leading the Company in the infectiously melodic, “Prepare Ye.” Craig Foster, who would have later vocal struggles of his own, gave us a resounding “God Save the People,” in his role as Jesus, and had powerful support from the ensemble. Meredith Tyler offered a serene and lovely “Day By Day,” enriched by the building rhythm and excitement from the chorus, as well as the pleasant choreography of designer, Jacquelyn Oldham. Meg Schneider led a hauntingly beautiful, “By My Side,” with a pleasant assist from the chorus and Rebecca Cansler in one of her stronger moments in the show. The song had a calming effect after the excessive mayhem of several numbers that preceded it. Miss Schneider also leads off the lovely Finale of “Long Live God” that closes the show as the crucified Christ is carried off stage.
I will close now myself by mentioning an important scriptural fact that was apparently overlooked by cast and crew. It was not Jesus who betrayed Judas with a kiss. It was the other way around.