The Shawnee Theatre opens their 49th Season with John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz’s musical “Godspell.” Godspell began its life as a master’s degree project at Carnegie-Mellon University. It opened on Broadway in 1971, just a year after “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Author John-Michael Tebelak has said that the show’s concept was inspired by a chapter titled “Christ the Harlequin” in Harvard Divinity Professor Harvey Cox’s book Feast of Fools. Playing Jesus, in a circus top hat and tales is master actor Mike Price. He’s a genial figure, a sort of camp counselor to the varied, talented and wildly costumed cast. “Godspell” draws most of its material from the Gospel of Mathew with some of the lyrics coming from the Episcopal Church Hymnal.
“Godspell” opens with the cast on stage making puppet like gestures. According to the synopsis they take turns speaking messages of philosophers from Socrates to Jean Paul Sartre. Then they speak them all together in a sort of Tower of Babel effect. Then Jesus appears. They stop babbling and start acting more human. The action of “Godspell” begins with the baptizing of Jesus by John the Baptist, Mike Carey. The show proceeds at a fast pace through a series of scenes of the parables and lessons. Some are told, some are danced, and some are even part of a game of charades. In a traditional and thought provoking part of the production, Judas is played by the same Mike Carey who appeared earlier as John the Baptist. The show concludes with Jeusus’s betrayal and then the dramatic finale of the crucifixion. Apparently neither the parables nor the mystery of the crucifixion took with the crowd, because they went back to their earlier jerky puppet behavior.
Much of the costuming and the action of the Shawnee production are inspired by director Matt Graber’s affection for Cirque du Soleil. The show has a bit of a circus feel and even a spirit of improvisation. Graber and set designer Rick Corley have come up with a very flexible set of elements that look like trunks, but can turn into quite a variety of stages.
The music director and pianist is Miranda Crispin. The cast sings well, but frequently the lead voices are mixed at or below the level of the instruments. It’s more a rock show than a musical mix.
The Shawnee Theatre production of “Godspell” continues with performances Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening shows and a Sunday matinee.
You can find an interview with the Shawnee’s Producing Artistic Director Matt Graber on our Arts Interviews podcast page .