Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Theater review: Godspell at Community Performing Arts Center in Cleburne
Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players' version of Godspell is worth the drive.
That pretty much sums up my experience watching Godspell, currently presented by the Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players at the Community Performing Arts Center through July 10. But being a critic, I must elaborate more.
For all of you who follow my reviews know, I have reviewed quite a few productions of Godspell over the last few years. I feel like I'm becoming a resident expert on this ever so popular musical. I've seen horrible productions and stellar productions, but what I haven't seen as of late is the more traditional presentation of this musical. The Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players turns back the clock to 1971 and gives us the most traditional version I have seen of this show. Boy-oh-boy does it ever work!
Godspell is very much a 1970s musical, and most theatre companies try to give it an update. By presenting this musical in such a straight forward fashion, the musical suddenly feels new and fresh again. The vibrant colors, the hippie clothing, and the retro set make it a visual feast. Yes there are some modern liberties like incorporating children into the production, but overall it's presented in a very retro style. Bravo!
The concept of Godspell is that it is a reunion of various people acting out many of the parables in the gospel of Matthew. The show in act two then leads us through the events of the Last Supper, the betrayal of Judas, and the crucifixion. If done correctly it should highly entertain, make you laugh, send chills up your spine, and emotionally wham you with the agony of the Passion. This Godspell does all of that.
This production has a singular vision. That vision belongs to Barry Swindall. He makes sure that his choreographer, his costumer, lighting designer, costumer, set designer, and musical director are all on the same page. The design elements and the staging are in complete synch and all wonderfully executed.
It helps that he has perhaps one of the most exuberant casts with not a single weak link in the show. I'd love to single out an actor but I can't because each brought something unique to the production and it all works. If I was to single out anyone it would be unfair because everyone is equally good…no, fantastic! There isn't a single false moment. Yes some are better vocal singers then others technically but though there are no Stephen Costello's, Pavarotti's, or Leontyne Price's in the cast each song is so heartfelt and earnestly sung that it doesn't matter. They all work so well together in the choral numbers and then shine in their individual songs that the evening maintains a fluidity seldom seen in a musical.
A nice touch to this production was the incorporation of children in the show. They come out of a "school house" at times and sing along with the cast during some of the larger production numbers.
It is also a delight hearing a live band on stage. I've seen versions with pre-canned music, others where it was just a keyboard, and others where wind instruments were used. This is a heavy guitar-laden band and they rock!
I must also say that the staging is as good as any Broadway show. I am not exaggerating here. Barry Swindall creates some gorgeous stage pictures that are at times deeply moving, beautiful, startling, and thrilling. He understands the need for visual comedy, shtick and sight gags, and his blocking and the performers deliver all of them with much gusto. Where he excels is with the staging of the more serious scenes leading to the crucifixion.
The stage picture that haunts me is the transition from the last supper to the garden of Gethsemane in which the apostles fall asleep and Jesus steps away to have his quiet prayer. The problem most directors have in this scene is how do you make nearly a dozen people sleeping an interesting and compelling picture so Jesus' isolation has the feeling of loneliness and despairs knowing he must die within hours? Swindall stages this with such visual mastery I felt a lump in my throat.
The other problem that is inherent in this musical is how do you take the first ¾ of Godspell which is such a joyous and raucous musical and then transition it into a moving and personal tragedy for the last quarter? Many productions fall flat in what is an abrupt transition in the book and score. Swindall fixes this by slowing down the pace in the transitional sequence. This allows the audience to "cool" down and be open for the intense dramatic shift. It also helps that Hazel Bell's reprise on the piano of "Day by Day" is played with such tenderness. With this we are ready for this final and grim chapter in the life of Jesus. I will suggest any directors that are contemplating mounting this musical come see this production to see how expertly Swindall handles it.
Swindall also understands the power of sound. The crucifixion scene is the most problematic piece in this musical and never fully satisfies me. Jesus has to sing repeatedly "I'm dying." By placing the entire cast on stage right and having Jesus slightly elevated, he creates a visual tension. Add to this the lighting effect of Jesus trapped in a spot light and the cast back lit so that we only see their silhouettes. This gives an aura of mystery and despair to the proceedings. As the lights slowly fade on Jesus we hear the ever rising cries of anguish from his followers leaving the audience in the dark with the sound of sobs and moans. The length of time is perfect and communicates volumes as to the tragic death of Jesus. After that? Silence. Alexandria Fazzari's lovely voice then leads us off into the finale. Truly moving and a moment that sears into my consciousness.
Many productions opt to add in a resurrection after the crucifixion. Not here. Jesus is simply taken down from the cross and carried out through the audience. This action becomes a powerful metaphor that Jesus, after all, is human. He isn't seen from afar remaining inaccessible on stage; he is real and one of us. It is similar to attending a funeral, seeing the casket of a loved one being carried out of a church by pall bearers. It is completely relatable to anyone who has experienced a funeral.
Another thing I must compliment is this production use of the actor's first names as the names of the characters. This makes identifying them quite easy. Though, as I've mentioned, I can't single out anyone for they all deserve the huge ovation they received. I also enjoy the fact that there is a wide age range on stage. By having a cross section of ages it also makes it very easy for the audience to identify with the performers. It truly emphasizes the idea of the "community of mankind" which is a recurring theme in this production.
Keli Price has what some would consider an unenviable job of choreographing mostly non-dancers in a show that requires quite a few dance numbers. She choreographs the show with this awareness and never gives a step or move that can't be performed 100% accurately. Since the show has a bit of a vaudevillian feel as each musical number represents a different style of music, it requires a certain level of discipline to carry off the dance sequences. No one falters. The choreography enhances each musical style and this cast is very well rehearsed.
The only negatives to this production are minor. The spotlight used is open too wide. A spot should be just that, a spot. I don't know if the spot is malfunctioning but every time it comes on it doesn't only illuminate the actor but an area eight feet around. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to focus on the actor or the surroundings. If there was a reason why the area around the actor was to be lit, it escaped me.
Jesus' song "Alas for You" needs to have a greater touch of anger. Auston McIntosh gives us a very noble, gentle and convincing Jesus, but the lyrics call for a more intense emotion and he underplays it. The staging and blocking is there to support his wrath. This moment proves to be difficult for everyone who has taken on this role and, saying that, his is one of the better portrayals I've seen, and I have seen quite a few in my lifetime.
There may be an issue with the singers hearing the band as every solo number is sharp. There's no doubt the cast can sing because the choral numbers are exquisitely sung. But when a singer breaks out and sings solo they are a half step off consistently. The only time this does not happen is when Judas sings "On the Willows." He was off stage at the time and perhaps he could hear the band better? One would think this ruins the musical, but it doesn't. The ear is a funny thing. When a dissonance occurs we as an audience are aware of it but soon our brain's perception fixes it. It also helps knowing that these are supposed to be regular people performing, not divas or superstars, thus making the characters much more accessible and relatable to the audience. In other words, it would be nice to have the band and the singers on the same pitch but it doesn't detract from the overall production.
I must apologize to the cast and the crew and the wonderful people of the theatre company. My commute out to the theatre was 67 miles. I arrived late. They were gracious enough to let me in. And for that I thank them profusely, otherwise I wouldn't have caught this magnificent production.
If you have ever been curious to go see Godspell or if you are already a fan, all I can say is this: GO! If you don't want to take my word for it, then may I suggest you take the word from my highly critical companion who has also directed this musical. His comment was, "That was really enjoyable. I am so glad I went to see it. It's worth seeing."
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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