An occupational hazard of operating as a local reviewer for as long as I have is seeing the same plays and musicals multiple times. Depending on the quality of the production, it’s not really a chore because I never tire of some shows. It’s like re-reading a favorite book and enjoying it once again. Such was the case when I saw “Godspell” on Friday at The Park, the outdoor venue on Illinois Street, just west of the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre. Considered by many to be an old chestnut, the musical was composed by Stephen Schwartz, with music by John-Michael Tebelak. Opening off-Broadway in 1971, the show has since been produced by multiple touring companies and in many revivals, including one in 2011 than ran on Broadway for over a year. The production on Friday was presented by Eclipse, a program of Summer Stock Stage, developed for its alumni. Anyone who reads my blog has seen my mostly rave reviews of past SSS and Eclipse shows and knows how supportive I am of the groups’ efforts.
It’s hard to imagine there are still some people who haven’t seen either a high school, college, community theatre or professional production of “Godspell,” but in case not, here is a snapshot synopsis: Structured as a series of parables, the musical is based on the Gospel of Matthew. The parables are weaved throughout the music, which is set to lyrics from traditional hymns, with the passion of Christ appearing briefly near the end of the show. A favorite of Christians, even those of other faiths and non-believers can relate to the positive messages the show imparts.
What set this particular production apart from others was Brandon Hank’s solid direction, distinctive performances, caliber of talent, exceptional vocal and dance execution overseen by choreographer Mariel Greenlee and music director Michael Berg Raunick, and unbridled energy of the cast. The outstanding ensemble included Matias Gonzalez as Jesus and Logan Mortier as John the Baptist/Judas. Others featured were Olivia Broadwater, Da’Keisha Bryant, Matthew Conwell, Natalie Fischer, Jackie Gundaker, Chase Infiniti, Mark Maxwell and Julia Murphy.
If there is anything consistent about Eclipse, it is the uniformly excellent casting choices. In the case of “Godspell,” director Brandon Hanks pulled off a coup in selecting this group of young professionals. Turning in performances that remain memorable for their vividness are Gonzalez, who was a force of nature with compelling and often intense stage presence as Jesus, Gundaker, who soloed in “Turn Back, O Man,” Conwell and Broadwater, who shined in their “Learn Your Lessons Well” reprise, and Maxwell who lit up the stage with his likability and effortless movement.
Seeing multiple productions of the same work also means I see different interpretations of the script and unique staging. When it comes to “Godspell,” I have seen the characters dressed as clowns and hippies, and even saw a production in which the setting was “The Jerry Springer Show.” I kid you not. As far as the Eclipse production, costuming designed by Anthony James Sirk, assisted by Allison Jones, was off-beat and fanciful, reflecting the playfulness of the characters.
Finally, kudos go out to scenic artist Kyle Ragsdale, lighting designer Quinten James and Zach Rosing for his sound design, who together created a rich, textured environment for this timeless story that continues to resonate with audiences who are inspired by its message of faith, hope and charity.