‘Godspell’ Review: Musical Theater Rises From the Dead

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — And it took place that the religion of the devoted was sorely examined throughout the months of famine, and there was an incredible starvation to imagine once more. Thus on a hazy night time in August, a number of rating of them gathered, with their decrease faces hidden as the occasions demanded, in a car parking zone in a small metropolis in the lap of the Berkshire Mountains. They had been in search of indicators of a resurrection.

It felt proper tent — with socially distanced folding chairs arrange inside — had been assembled behind the Colonial Theater right here, as if for a revival assembly. The 1971 musical “Godspell,” which was being reincarnated by the Berkshire Theater Group, relies on parables from the New Testament, and its main man is known as Jesus.

But the creed being promulgated so poignantly right here, in a temper that may be described as extremely artistic warning, wasn’t a lot Christianity as the embattled faith of theater, the observe of which has all however disappeared in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The very existence of this model of John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz’s half-century-old slice of story-theater uplift qualifies as one thing of a miracle. As a normal rule, summer season stagings of “Godspell,” a favourite of church and college theaters, are as widespread as crab grass. But this “Godspell” has historic singularity on its facet. It is the first skilled musical, sanctioned by Actors Equity, to open on this nation since the nice pandemic lockdowns started.

This signifies that the present, directed by Alan Filderman and choreographed by Gerry McIntyre, needed to comply with guidelines of Talmudic rigor, in compliance with the Massachusetts State Department of Health, to maintain its 10-member solid and its 75-member viewers protected from an infection. Such dictums have been exhausting sufficient to implement in supermarkets.

But in dwell theater, which depends on communal intimacy? And “Godspell,” which historically options sunny younger casts cuddling and romping like a herd of puppies, is certainly one of the huggiest musicals ever created.

That’s certainly one of the causes hardened critics have tended to sneer at “Godspell.” Check out the critiques which have appeared in The New York Times over the years, and also you’ll discover descriptions like “nauseating” (Clive Barnes, 1971); “recalls nothing so much as ‘The Muppet Show’” (Bruce Weber, 2000), and “relentlessly perky” (Charles Isherwood, 2010).

But historical and social context counts for a lot in how a work of art is perceived. If you’ve been stranded in a desert with nothing to drink, a communion chalice of grape soda may taste like the finest Champagne. Having experienced theater only via computer screens for some 150 days, I was thirsty for any kind of in-person encounter with flesh-and-blood practitioners.

I hasten to add here that this “Godspell” isn’t just better than nothing. And it’s as deeply affecting as it is not despite, but because of, its well-worn material. In reimagining a string of biblical life lessons and folkified hymns and gospel songs for the age of the coronavirus, Mr. Filderman and company are speaking to contemporary fears bred by isolation and inaction.

The production begins with the cast members describing what their lives have been like during lockdown and the Black Lives Matter protests. (The original “Godspell” portrayed a battling dialogue of famous philosophers.)

They have all had their acting careers derailed, and they describe feelings of fear, even mortal fear, and hopelessness. And they worry that the theater they knew and lived by might indeed be a thing of the past.

Despite being part of a cast of 10, each performer is up there alone. They usually dance (even tap dance) in place, sometimes seated. (High points: Nicholas Edwards as Jesus and Tim Jones as Judas doing a vaudeville-style duet with yardsticks instead of canes, and lots of hand-sanitizing shtick, and Zach Williams vamping like a killer chorine from “Chicago.”) When the script calls for physical contact — which includes being baptized, embracing, slapping a cheek (so the other can be turned) and, of course, a Judas kiss — action and reaction are delivered in separate, distanced places.

As a metaphor for how so many of us have been living since March, this form of theatrical communication feels both heartbreaking and valiant. We adapt, we make do, even as we long to return to the age of the handshake and the hug.

This style of performance also has the advantage of scaling back the antic, exhibitionist quotient of “Godspell.” As in most latter-day productions, there are interpolated cute contemporary references (they here include Dad jokes and the Occupy movement). But there’s a new sense of reflectiveness here, and you actually feel you’re seeing the show’s precepts put into action.

Of course, the telling of the parables — the prodigal son, the good Samaritan — still fill lots of stage time, a bit tediously, with the performers adopting cute accents. It’s when the cast members, most of whom embody a multitude of roles, sang that I found my mandatory face mask was often wet with tears.

It’s not that all have exceptional voices (although Alex Getlin, doing “By My Side,” written by Jay Hamburger and Peggy Gordon, has an Orphic folk alto to melt stone). But they sing with clarity, conviction and a radiant gratitude for the chance to be there. And neither they nor Andrew Baumer’s musical direction ever push too hard for soul-rousing, hand-clapping effect (not even during the show’s breakout hit, “Day by Day,” sincerely sung by Isabel Jordan).

As for the man of the moment — or should I say of eternity? — Edwards’s open-faced Jesus is no holier-than-thou, preachy prophet. In song, he projects a beatified ambivalence that turns mixed feelings into a state of grace. His voice segues from burnished mellowness into a big, blazing brightness that’s always underscored with pain.

Source link Nytimes.com

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