People begin to gather in the neighborhood dressed in their work clothes representing many walks of life. All are talking, and the scene becomes very busy (“Tower of Babble”). A man begins noodling on a piano in the window of the music store, and he will become the “band” (Joe Schoen, also credited as musical director). Soon a guy (Charlie Barron) begins encouraging all to “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” and tosses them water bottles (a clever symbol for baptism). Another man shows up and asks to be baptized, and the first man who we now recognize as John, demurs. But Jesus (J. Samuel Davis) insists, so he gets the full “down by the riverside treatment” including being washed and given a clean garment. Game on.
Barron also represents Judas, and the rest of the characters are unnamed followers of Jesus, tellers of tales, players of games, and finally mourners of the crucified Christ. They are Justin Ivan Brown, Laura Ernst, Justin Leibrecht, Isabella Liu, Amy Loui, Khnemu Menu-Ra, Deborah Sharn and Anna Skidis. Most are well-known to St. Louis theatergoers. Together, they form a powerful ensemble and each is outstanding in his or her own right. Even without character names, we come to know them and identify with them. Sometimes they follow Jesus, sometimes they doubt him, but he always pulls them back with the divine word and his own leadersip. Most of the show is sung and the lyrics are derived from the Gospel of Matthew (with some Luke tossed in) as interpreted through hymns. The entire three-year journey of Jesus is encapsulated in two hours of song and dance, humor and heartbreak.
Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and original lyrics. John-Michael Tebelak has credit for the concept and original direction. The first professional production took place in 1971 off Broadway. Subsequent productions were mounted in Toronto and London and finally, the show came to Broadway in1976. It wasn’t revived there again until 2011, but Godspell has long been a staple of high school, community, and smaller professional theatres such as Mustard Seed. Its message never dates and the music, action and settings are malleable enough to fit any era. It is not like its closest contemporary in time and subject, Jesus Christ, Superstar, though some of the same themes resonate in both, because it doesn’t posit any particularities such as a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalen; rather, this show is a straightforward interpretation of the Gospel as we have been given it.
Jesus is charismatic, so it’s easy to see why he attracts followers. He teaches through means accessible to all. He laughs readily and models the love he preaches. Davis could be the proverbial dictionary picture that defines “charisma,” and that helps, but he also manages to make Jesus three-dimensional, so we can see his human side, including his fear, sorrow, and pain clearly. Barron isn’t quite as effective as Judas, but perhaps he shouldn’t be, and he is a brooding presence dressed in black throughout as a constant reminder of what awaits.
Julie Venegoni, Laura Ernst and the ensemble have created clever, tight choreography. Jane Sullivan’s costumes are terrific, and a change of a piece of clothing here, an accessory there, can make any parable pop. A shopping cart holds the prop clothing on stage, and when a character needs a piece, he or she just goes over and gets it. One of the numbers staged in a church service finds all the ladies pulling out hats. Meg Brinkley and Adrienne Curry have props and wardrobe credits, respectively. Dunsi Dai’s set looks like Little Shop of Horrors’ Skid Row meets Sesame Street, and it couldn’t work any better. It has two levels, and on the “rooftops,” the cast members are almost in the rafters. A complex light plot by Michael Sullivan enhances the action enormously. He wears out the board with full on sunshine and darkest night, a spot zeroed in on Jesus during his night on Gethsemane and the thunderstorm that comes out of nowhere at the moment of his death. Kareem Deanes’ sound design is the perfect complement to the setting.
Godspell presents the Jesus we find in the New Testament who loves all humankind and keeps his eyes on the prize: the soul of every man, woman and child who ever did, does or will walk the earth. If you are a believer, this is your show; and if you aren’t, you’ll still have a grand time. “Godspell” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word, gódspell, meaning “word of God,” and that’s what you get here: the purity of the message before organized “religion” got in its way: Love God and live “Day by Day.”