“Godspell” is the show that just won’t quit. Just when you think you’ve seen the last adaptation known to theaterkind, set in either an asylum, prison, playground or abandoned building, here we have another setting for us to contemplate life’s fundamental lessons.
The Stephen Schwartz-penned musical of John Michael Tebelak’s concept is a retelling of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, in which Jesus befriends his followers, teaches them lessons of humanity, and the rest of the story with which you’re likely well informed. It’s not a happy ending, theatrically speaking at least, but its importance to a vast segment of audiences is palpably divine.
The new production from O’Connell & Company adds another credit to a long list of local and regional productions, some of which have taken on a Shakespearean flexibility. In darker retellings, where Jesus is presented as a schizophrenic in a mental ward, for instance, the spiritualism of a persecuted savior is offered as cynicism, either of the ideology being presented, or as backlash to a society growing ever so distant from the church.
Under Joey Bucheker’s direction (he also choreographs), we don’t go so far left of center. This is no walk in the park. Bucheker uses not only the updated version from the 2011 Broadway revival, featuring some new lyrics from Schwartz, but sets it much closer to home.
The show opens with a commentary on our growing digital world, in which interpersonal communication is on devices and face-to-face interaction is therefore more odd, shocking and uncomfortable. We transition into a post-apocalyptic tent city, resembling an Occupy Wall Street camp for young renegades, angry philosophers and sidewalk pundits. It feels less futuristic than this strange hole might have looked 20 years ago; it is decidedly current.
Bucheker’s company works this setting very well, even if they don’t fully convince us of their own proclivity for protest. This is one major criticism of this otherwise effervescent cast: It’s difficult to buy their desperation for intervention. We can easily gauge their need to entertain, expunge and expand.
But when the going gets tough, dramatic scenes don’t tear at the heart intensely enough to feel pain, sacrifice or loss. An appropriately large amount of time might have been spent on comedic organization – much to its credit – but not nearly enough on its dramatic antidotes. Subsequently, Act One is terrific fun, while Act Two is disappointingly deflated.
That said, when it works, it really works. Kim Côté, a Los Angeles transplant to the Buffalo stage making her local debut, is of particular note. She’s a chameleon capable of both hamming it up with tomboy confidence and luring eager boys with girl-next-door charm. She is fun and important to watch, serving – alongside the increasingly dependable Steve Sitzman – as de facto leaders of this ambling troupe.
Christopher Teal is similarly rambunctious. Teal is our comedian and impressionist, punctuating many of the script’s signature riffs on current events and pop culture. (Updates to these references, some of them local, reportedly came suggested by a representative from Schwartz’s management. Accordingly, they are well placed, to say nothing of their delivery.)
Leanne Troutman, whose surprisingly soulful voice delivers a rousing “Bless the Lord,” also is a fine actor in smaller moments. Corey Bieber, too, especially in Act Two with his knee-slapping impersonation of a goat. Jerry Mosey, a stage veteran and Niagara University faculty member, grounds this group of kids with both soothing wisdom and rambunctious vitality; his young-at-heart presence is a spirited balance.
Timothy Goehrig, our Jesus, is certainly serviceable, though he does not always lead the way appropriately enough. He has a genuineness about him, and humility and humanity, but as a leader – to both this ensemble and these disciples – he is not commanding enough. Some of his harrowing moments feel sterile by comparison.
This kind of imbalance is most egregious in a show that’s already this loose. A strong vision can reign in the blob of “Godspell’s” skeleton and mold it into something newly structural. In reading this new “Godspell” under the glow of your smartphone, we see what Schwartz’s updates and Bucheker’s interpretation are going for: In a world so deafened by interference, what hope do we have for clarity, simplicity or authenticity?
This staging gets closer to addressing that quandary than those more wildly conceived versions, though by only going 80, 85 percent of the way, its proverbial question loses steam before it’s so directly asked.
Where: O’Connell & Company, the Park School, 4625 Harlem Road, Snyder
When: Through May 25
Info: 848-0800, www.oconnellandcompany.com