Tuesday, August 1, 2023

"Godspell" at Artistry

Artistry's second production in their 2023 season, coming back after a rough spell, is the 1971 musical Godspell (postponed from last fall). Written by Stephen Schwartz (who later penned a little show called Wicked) when he was in his early 20s, it tells the story of Jesus, with lyrics mostly taken from the Gospel of Matthew in the Christian Bible. Musically it's more akin to Pippin (his second musical to be produced, also in the '70s) than Wicked, and thematically and stylistically it bears some resemblance to the 1968 peace and love musical Hair. It may seem like an odd juxtaposition - the teachings of Jesus mixed with popular music and a sort of hippie group of friends, but it actually isn't. Jesus' original message of love, kindness, forgiveness, compassion, non-judgement, and community, before it was corrupted by institutional religion, is beautifully conveyed through this music-theater vehicle. Artistry has assembled a dynamite ensemble of performers, each one of them a superstar, for a joyful, fun, and moving show that's really all about love and acceptance. As radical an idea today as it was 2000 years ago.

the group before joining the peace and love cult
(photo by Tommy Sar)
The show begins with a cacophony of voices you might hear on the street today. A diverse group of people of different occupations (doctor, businessman), on their cell phones, passing each other on the street. Enter John the Baptist, urging everyone (in song) "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord." They all enter this peace and love cult, changing clothes into something more comfortable and colorful, and listen to Jesus' stories and teachings. The lyrics are primarily taken from the Gospel, and are poetic and lyrical, well suited to being sung. Familiar stories (to those who grew up Christian) of turning the other cheek, the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, and more are acted out by the troupe in a fun and playful manner. They've added in tons of modern and pop culture references, from The White Lotus to podcasts to Jeopardy, making the story seem fresh and modern.

Unfortunately I attended the show on a day when John Jamison, who plays Jesus, was out, but fortunately Ben Siglin was the understudy, and they gave an incredible performance. It's a tough role to step into, being at the center of the story, with lots of lyrics and big emotional moments, and Ben stepped up to seamlessly fill that role. If you didn't know they were the understudy, you wouldn't know. Possessing a gorgeous voice and sweetly commanding presence, they authentically conveyed a range of emotions as Jesus goes from hanging out with his friends to hanging on the cross.

The only other named character in the show is the aforementioned John, typically played by the same actor who later plays Judas, who betrays Jesus. The always delightful Jordan Legett plays both roles. The other seven ensemble members (Benjamin Dutcher, Grace Hillmyer, Nora Sonneborn, Javari Horne, Caleb Michael, Elena Glass, and Wariboko Semenitari) play characters with their own names, and often call each other by their names in the show. Under director Vanessa Brooke Agnes, they all perform with a light, playful, friendly tone, teasing and supporting each other. This group truly feels like an ensemble, like a bunch of friends telling stories and singing songs. And the great thing about this show is that each of them has a solo number or two (they even sometimes declare it, like Grace charmingly does). Each one of them can bring the house down with their vocals, so it's truly a treat to watch them trading solos and sharing their unique talent. And when they all sing in harmony, it's a beautiful sound.

the cast of Godspell (with John Jamison as Jesus)
(photo by Tommy Sar)
The singable '70s pop-rock score, from ballads to up-tempo numbers, is played by the onstage six-person band, heavy on guitar, led by Music Director Bradley Beahen. It's nice when your Music Director also has a fantastic voice, as Bradley does, lending a few harmonies and even taking a solo or two. The set is "an abandoned housing project and public park space," with graffitied brick walls and a chain-link fence, and costumes are a fun and funky modern style that match each character's personality (scenic design by Katie Edwards, costume design by Jacourtney Mountain-Bluhm). Choreographer Kyle Weiler has created some fun and high-flying movement that's less big dance numbers and more flowing with the music.

The story of Jesus, with his teachings of love and forgiveness, is a powerful one. There's a reason it's lasted for 2000 years and inspired a major world religion. This music-theater retelling, in the hands of this cast and creative team, is a joyful noise indeed. See it at Artistry in Bloomington now through August 13.