Thursday, February 13, 2020

Review of "Godspell"

Trent Sauders (middle) as Jesus and his followers in "Godspell."
Godspell is the type of musical where the artistic vision of the Director can take center stage.  The current production of the show at A Contemporary Theater of Connecticut in Ridgefield is a good case in point.  Director Daniel C. Levine has pulled out all the stops in providing a high quality and energetic production.  Had his efforts displayed some restraint and editing, the musical would have been superb.

The show Is loosely organized as a series of parables from the Gospel of Matthew with the Jesus figure and his followers participating in the oratory.  In addition to the spoken words is the iconic Stephen Schwartz score that bubbles over with passion and vitality.  They include “Save the People,” “Bless the Lord,” “All for the Best,” “Light of the World,” and the classic “Day by Day.”  The songs are powerfully delivered by the strong cast and backstage combo.  It is one of Schwartz’s most satisfying efforts for the musical stage.

The production is centered in an abandoned church, beautifully and imaginatively rendered by Scenic Designer Reid Thompson.  Lighting Designer Jack Mehler and Sound Designer John Salutz strikingly augment the production values of the musical. 
The cast of "Godspell."

Among the garbage, clutter and ramshackle interior reside a group of squatters and ragamuffin children.  Their impishness and good humor is suddenly interrupted by a group of developers that enter the former house of worship.  They are there to survey the building’s core with plans to raze the structure in order to build high-priced condos.  In quick succession, with a spark of fantasy, the well-healed white-collar workers are transformed—in both awareness and dress—into followers of “The Lord” as the teaching and learning begins.  The accomplished child actors, for most of the performance, are perched above the goings-on, serving as innocent, silent observers with occasional levels of participation.

Levine has incorporated cultural, political, and musical references to aid the storytelling.  Some work extremely well such as the Hamilton and Wicked tie-ins.  The Games of Thrones nod is underwhelming and a prolonged scene parodying Harvey Weinstein’s misogynistic behavior is a miscalculation.
The cast of "Godspell."

Even with these ups and downs, the Director’s inventiveness and creativity never lets up.  The ideas and inspired choices come fast and furious, mostly with positive results.  Choreographer Sara Brians contributes engaging dance numbers to keep the show lively and enjoyable.

Every nook and cranny of the performance space is utilized and Props Designer Abigail Bueti deserves kudos for the variety and amount of objects she has assembled for the production.

Again, while Godspell is thoroughly entertaining, some pruning or reconceptualization of some passages would have made the show more fluid and nimbly paced.  For example, the beginning of the musical, while a novel and interesting approach—Levine states the property developers “see money as their God and the high-rise condos as their church”—the scene is overly long and could have been trimmed or quickened.
The cast of "Godspell."

The show is truly an ensemble piece with each of the first-rate cast members deserving recognition—Shaylen Harger, Jacob Hoffman, Katie Ladner, Alex Lugo, Cameron Nies, Andrew Poston, Monica Ramirez, Phil Sloves, Morgan Billings, and Emma Tattenbaum.  In addition to working as a cohesive unit, each performer is given a star turn through song, dance, or narration.  Still, two of the actors do warrant singular attention.  Trent Saunders, as Jesus, brings a subtle, introspective aura to his portrayal.  He has a penetrating insight that commands attention and respect.  Jaime Cepero, brings a diversity of talents to his roles of John the Baptist and Judas.  He exerts a high level of confidence and showmanship.

Godspell, overall, a charming and winning production.  Playing at A Contemporary Theatre in Ridgefield through March 8. For information, go to:

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