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Trustus Does a Great Job With “Godspell,” But Its Still “Godspell”

Review by August Krickel

Trustus Theatre is doing a famously controversial play that tackles themes of intolerance and faith. Which would be pretty much business as usual for them, except that most of the controversy surrounding Godspell died down in the 70's; in recent decades it's been widely hailed as an uplifting retelling of the life and message of Jesus, and has been performed at countless churches and high schools worldwide. And while a musical at Trustus with an overtly religious message is not exactly grounds for mass hysteria or dogs and cats living together,  the choice may raise eyebrows in various circles, so let me try to assuage a few potential concerns. No, no one gets naked, and no they don't try to change the basic story. Godspell has always included a significant amount of improvisation that draws from traditions of vaudeville and commedia dell'arte, as the cast acts out and reacts to familiar stories from the Bible, often with comic, anachronistic modern references. Dewey Scott-Wiley directs the revised script from a 2011 Broadway reboot that updates many of these references, with allusions to cell phones and Facebook, Donald Trump and the Kardashians. But the songs are all the same, although some have been re-arranged and/or re-orchestrated for a more modern sound with a harder rocking edge. The good news is that the ebullient young cast and band do a terrific job, sustaining a consistently high level of energy and commitment for two-and-a-quarters hours of toe-tapping fun, with the professionalism that one has come to expect from Trustus.  But it's still Godspell.  It's the stories and parables many of us learned as children: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, "cast the first stone," and "turn the other cheek." And the production never shies away from its core identity as a play in which the performers are presenting Christian lessons and values, as....well, as gospel.

For many of my generation who attended church and Sunday school regularly while growing up, that's not a problem. A hip, young bearded English teacher took a school group of 8th, 9th and 10th graders, including me, to see the first Columbia production of Godspell in the 70's at Workshop, and there was much consternation among parents that we were being exposed to a blasphemous rock musical that made a mockery of Christianity. Which of course it didn't, and unknown to most of our parents, our school choir had already been singing the song "Day By Day" from Godspell for several years. But fast forward a generation or two, and there are certainly a significant number of folks who feel marginalized by Christianity and/or organized religion, usually over issues of gender, race, sexuality, and other hot-button topics. All I can say is that this show will neither try to convert you, nor point an accusing finger at you and tell you that you're going to burn in hell for your lifestyle; it really is possible to enjoy it for the pretty songs and excellent performances by the cast.

Speaking of that cast, they're all millennials, except for Scott Vaughan, an ageless Gen-X-er who, as Jesus (although only referred to as "Master" in the script) blends in seamlessly with his youthful cohorts. I've appreciated Vaughan in numerous roles, including the leads in Willie Wonka and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but I've always considered him to be a very reserved and restrained performer. Here he goes for the gusto, with a level of vitality and exuberance I've never seen before. One huge improvement from previous incarnations of this piece is the discarding of the clown make-up and Superman logo; Vaughan instead wears nondescript khakis, a plain white T-shirt, and a baseball jersey (with the number "1" subtly embroidered on the back, lest you forget who he's portraying.) With his delicate good looks, perfect hair, and the ubiquitous head microphone attached to the side of his face, Vaughan could easily appear to be a televangelist, and it's to his credit that he projects the appearance of a credible and sympathetic leader. 

East cast member gets to sing lead on at least one song, and there are no weak voices. While you've seen most of them in other shows, you don't normally see these specific performers in shows all together, although four were in last spring's Young Frankenstein at Workshop. There are pleasant surprises: it turns out Kayla Cahill, whom I've enjoyed in a number of acting roles, is a gifted singer and dancer as well. While the cast generally wears festive and playful modern attire representing assorted personas (the geek, the hipster, etc.) her costume recalls a sort of hippie-chick vibe, and she becomes the first, and seemingly most innocent and sincere, person to commit her life to Jesus, long before he has impressed the rest of the cast with his wisdom and compassion; her rendition of the hit single "Day By Day" is just precious. It also turns out that Mark Ziegler can sing soul like few white boys can, and that Michael Hazin can do imitations of just about every celebrity who ever existed, including a spot-on Bill Clinton, and even his Ash character from last summer's Evil Dead the Musical. Shannon Earle's luxurious voice on "By My Side" was for me the most outstanding and appealing.

Unlike works that incorporate the historical aspect of the life of Jesus, Godspell doesn't try to explain why Judas betrays his master, except that this it to fulfill how the prophets foretold it would go down. I'm not sure if it was Mario McClean's nuanced body language and expressions, or blocking and direction by Scott-Wiley, or just my imagination, but here I always got the impression that McClean as Judas never quite bought into the entire devotion-to-the-Lord thing. The odd-man-out effect was quite subtle, but effectively set up the climactic betrayal. McClean is always a strong performer, and he channeled a bit of the singer Seal in his performance of "On the Willows."  There seem to be a lot of little touches by Scott-Wiley, in fact, that try to make the material (which, however updated, is still 2000 years old) as accessible as possible. Vaughan, for example, has a seemingly random line about how this is the beginning, at which point several of the performers echo Pharisees and other naysayers who question his teachings. By having Vaughan accentuate that line, and then making the three performers seem creepy via sound, lighting and costume effects, the audience sees more clearly (and perhaps follows more nearly!) where the roots of the finale stem from. Of course, there's only so much author John-Michael Tebelak's script can do while being faithful to the original language of the Gospels. As above, if you know these stories already, you'll enjoy silly, irreverent play-acting that enlivens them, but there are still plenty of references to Caesar, Samaritans, the Prophets and the Law, farmers sowing seeds, and people tending goats and pigs, which may be lost on some attendees. 

Chad Henderson's set incorporates lighting effects (by Marc Hurst) to suggest a cyber-wasteland of hi-tech servers in front of which the passion of Christ plays out. Jeremy Polley's sound design takes advantage of the theater's recently upgraded audio system, and there's not a single microphone glitch or snippet of feedback. Costumes by Amy Brower Lown and Molly McNutt intentionally look like a frenzy at a thrift store, but also seem comfortable and fun to play in. Thankfully, at least to me, the face-painting and hippie-meets-clown garb has been relegated to the past. Choreography by Caroline Lewis Jones works well in creating fast-paced, MTV-style dance and movement. Music Director Randy Moore capably leads a capable band that rocks out a little more than one normally experiences at a stage musical, but his greatest triumph is in the cast's uniformly rich vocals. 

Ultimately, however, it's still Godspell. Revamped, and reimagined for a new generation, but with 100% of the lessons from Jesus and the entire Stephen Schwartz score intact. If you're turned off by religion, or conversely if you're offended by performers taking artistic license with the way in which religion is presented, or for that matter if you’re not wild about 40-year-old show tunes, then this is one to skip. If on the other hand you like the material or are intrigued by this description - whether or not you're particularly religious - then you won't find a better realization of one of the most popular and influential of modern musicals.  And if you're hesitant, I want to stress again that no one is going to try to convert you or ask you to sing "Kumbaya."  Godspell runs through Saturday, April 11th, but dates and times are a little different than usual, with extra matinee and weekday evening performances, but no shows on Easter weekend. So more importantly than usual, be sure to visit www.trustus.org or call (803) 254-9732 for ticket information and availability.



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