Written by Daniella Litvak
These days musical theater composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz is probably best known for Wicked. But his other shows are also beloved, continuously performed hits such as Pippin and the one currently running at the Cabrillo Playhouse –Godspell.
Godspell is a musical retelling of the teachings of Jesus Christ and Judas’ betrayal set during a more contemporary era. One of the interesting things about Godspell is its mutable setting. The play can be staged to harken back to the aesthetic of the early 70s –the time when Godspell debuted –or be set during the present day. The Cabrillo Playhouse chooses the later, but the set design and costuming infuses both current and retro styles, which I liked. I thought the use of The Beatles and Star Wars: The Force Awakens posters was a nice way to simultaneously invoke past and present.
Ok, back to the plot. The shows starts with a disparate, disconnected group of people waiting at the Church Ave. subway stop (fun fact from the Director’s note, there is an actual Church Ave. subway stop in New York). Then –after John the Baptist (KJ Brown) announces his coming –Jesus Christ (Jordan Killon) arrives on the scene. The people forget about the subway and become his disciples. What follows are Jesus and the disciples performing skits of the parables: Lazarus, the Good Samaritan, and etc. The skits are done in a variety ways, and for the most part they’re comedic and light-hearted. My favorite of the parables was the one about Prodigal Son. However, the downside of this format is that it comes off as more tell instead of show.
Not every song is a winner. I found the opening number, “Tower of Babble,” confusing. Afterwards when I had a chance to google Godspell, the purpose of the song makes more sense to me now. In general I do not think it will hurt to go into Godspell with some familiarity of both the Biblical source material and the show itself. I found myself liking more songs as the show went on. My favorite is “All for the Best.” It is a Jesus and Judas (KJ Brown again) duet performed in very vaudeville esque way that is catchy and peppy.
The singing is good for the most part. However, there were times when the vocals overpower the music. Then there were even more instances when the opposite happened –turning a song into a muddle. I feel similarly about the acting. There are quite a few charming moments. However, it definitely goes into full-blown camp territory, which becomes exhausting to watch after a while. It does not help that the disciples are not given much nuance in their characterization. It’s intentional because from Godspell’s inception the disciples were always conceived as clowns –hence the face paint. This does not keep me from wishing they were given the development and time to be fully realized people. When the show transitions from the parables to the passion portion, there are a quite a few moving moments. Pathos is definitely evoked.
So yeah, Godspell… It has its highs. It has its lows. It’s playing at the Cabrillo Playhouse.
June 3rd – June 26th 2016
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