Monday, February 24, 2014

"Godspell" at Lyric Arts

Godspell is one of those well-known musicals that I've never seen. It's also the first musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, who wrote one of my favorite musicals, Wicked. So I was curious to see it, and showed up at Lyric Arts not knowing much about the show or any of the songs (although a few were familiar once I heard them). I found it to be fun and entertaining, with some great songs of various styles, energetically performed by a cast that is obviously having a blast. It's unabashedly corny (e.g., characters touching each other on the nose as a sign of affection), but that's not a bad thing, in fact it sort of revels in the corniness. Godspell is not going to be joining Wicked on my list of favorite musicals, but it's cute and fun with catchy tunes (I can't stop singing "Day by Day").

Godspell is sort of a musical comedy version of the life of Jesus and his followers, with the parables he tells them forming different little skits and songs as they all act out the stories. The show begins with everyone on their cell phones, individuals in this modern world. They soon throw away their phones and come together to listen to and learn from Jesus. The show is overall pretty light-hearted in tone, almost campy at times, with a brief somber moment when Jesus dies. But it ends on a high note, with everyone returning to stage and sharing the joy and love of this community they've built.

Being unfamiliar with the show, I looked for parallels to shows I do know, and I found one in Hair. Godspell premiered off-Broadway in 1971, just a few years after Hair rocked the musical theater world (literally and figuratively). I can see a lot of similarities between the two pieces - a tribe of friends with similar ideals trying to change the world, a loose plot structure more like a series of skits and unrelated songs on a similar theme, a leader who dies in service to his people and then comes back for a glorious final anthem, and an overall message of peace, love, and harmony. In a way, Jesus was the original hippie, with his long hair and sandals, preaching peace, love, non-violence, and community. Godspell is like Hair without the sex, drugs, and nakedness (in other words, not quite as much fun ;).

the cast of Godspell
Director Robert Neu gracefully leads his talented ten-person cast through this high energy and musically challenging show. Other than Jesus (Colin Hutchins) and John/Judas (Charles Goitia), there are no characters as such, rather a group of followers going by each actor's name. Each one gets their moment to shine, and rises to the occasion (standouts include the high schooler Zach Marleau, a total ham in the best possible way, and Quinn Shadko, with a lovely classically trained voice and great onstage presence). But the best part is when they're working as a group, ad-libbing and joking with each other in the moments between scenes. It's almost more fun to watch these side conversations than the main action. The cast is obviously very comfortable with each other and have worked hard to achieve that camaraderie along with the musicality. Another fun aspect of the show is its interactive nature. Audience members are occasionally brought up on stage to participate, and the cast hangs out during intermission to mingle with the audience. This is the kind of thing I enjoy watching but dread being forced to participate in, so I was happy to observe from my inside seat.

The costumes (by Samantha Fromm Haddow) are odd and colorful and quirky, and provide some individuality to the cast of nameless characters. The set (by Kirby Moore) is a series of grey stone blocks and steps that allows the cast plenty of room to play. And the four-piece band capably leads the cast through the diverse musical styles.

Lyric Arts' production of Godspell is a cute, fun show with a talented energetic cast that is having as much fun as the audience. Playing through March 16 with discount tickets available on Goldstar.