Let me get this out of the way: “Godspell” has never resonated with me. And it’s not because I’m Jewish. The hippie-rock retelling of the Gospel of Matthew is a story like any other. I’m not prejudice to its subject matter.
No, it has to do with its theatricality. The show’s parable voice employs a gestural kind of storytelling that can be fun, party-like even, but also exhausting and condescending over two hours. Just tell me the story, please.
This flexibility is a goldmine for theater practitioners looking to stretch their muscles. They can do anything with it, like they can with Shakespeare. Set it in any era, culture or context and it retains its integrity. To this point, it may not be that it’s the show I don’t care for, rather the different versions I’ve seen of it: set in a mental institution, on a playground, in the inner city.
I’m happy to report that the dry spell is over. “Godspell” has found me. The Lancaster Opera House’s new production, which opened April 21, is a breath of fresh air. It’s clean, smooth and personable. For the first time, I felt the energy that must have been running through its creators’ veins. (It began as a college project in 1970 at Carnegie Mellon University, before moving to off-Broadway and the rest of the world.)
Director Kevin Leary does a remarkable job. It is the tightest production of a musical I have seen on a local stage in many years. It moves with a fresh and youthful spirit, and doesn’t sacrifice maturity in the process. Not a single moment is wasted. He stages a tableau like it’s architecture. His choreography is efficient, expressive and intelligent. There is a single vision at work here, and it shows in every breath.
Leary’s concept is not groundbreaking, in fact it’s as classic as the Superman T-shirt and red suspenders worn famously by Jesus in the original production. (Lise Harty dresses this crew mostly in black, but you can almost see the big yellow “S” regardless.)
Action is set on an empty stage, a blank canvas for Ruth Strzelewicz’s delicious lighting. Her palette of warm ombrés and cool shadows are indeed the 11th cast member. Our storytellers appear to be a sophisticated drama club, equipped with their imagination, their bodies and a Viola Spolin arsenal of theater games. Their excitement could crack the back brick wall in half. (Refer to "Saturday Night Live’s" avant-garde high school theater troupe for what could go wrong.) They’re not going to give you cavities with their spirit fingers, though. They’re here to work.
Kyle Baran leads the group as our humble, calm, peaceful Jesus. He plays the role with a Jewish sensibility, like a wise old man stuck in a younger man’s body. With this, his leadership becomes approachable and earnest. Baran’s Jesus is far from the superhero usually depicted in this show.
Valerie Stevens gives a rousing “O, Bless the Lord, My Soul,” one of the more impressive numbers. Adam Kluge’s spirited take on “We Beseech Thee” is full of life. Kathleen Macari turns up the heat with a seductive “Turn Back, O Man.” And Lorenzo Parnell’s beautiful vocals on “All Good Gifts” brings everything into focus.
Fran Landis’s musical direction is balanced and supportive, carrying the torch of 1960s folk right through the guitar rock of the 1970s. You don’t always notice musicianship in a musical’s pit band or orchestra until they make a mistake. (Same goes for sound design, which is provided here by GB Audio.) This band’s performance is above par, and noticeable.
On paper the approach seems as incredulous as my stated criticisms. Turn up the volume on any single element and the bell tower might blast off into the sky. But it works so well, so effortlessly. There’s not a weak link in the bunch. Even its imperfections—a pitchy note here, a clumsy dance step there—feel perfectly human. In the spirit of the gospel, that’s what makes it so divine.
What: “Godspell” by John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz
4 stars (out of four)
Where: Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster
When: Through May 7 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $30 general, $28 seniors and $10 students (box office)
Info: lancopera.org, 683-1776