Thursday, May 5, 2011
Theater review: Godspell at Creative Arts Theatre & School in Arlington
This production far outshone some of the "professional" productions I'd attended.
I have now seen more versions of Godspell than I can remember easily off the top of my head. I never cared for this musical until I saw a production a few years ago at a church that simply blew me away. That is when I became a fan of the show. So when I was assigned to review it at Creative Arts Theatre & School in Arlington (playing through May 15), I must confess I felt a sense of dread, because I had seen so many bad productions.
Godspell is not the easiest musical to do well. Many theatre companies, professional and amateur, falsely believe that this popular musical will be easy to mount. The songs don't seem difficult, and because it is episodic in nature, many directors think it'll be a breeze to stage. How hard can it be to stage musical vignettes? The answer is: extremely difficult.
A few years I saw a production of Godspell which was produced and directed by one of the best directors I know. It was the worst stage disaster I've had the displeasure of attending.
So how did Creative Arts Theatre & School's production measure up?
Color me surprised when I left the theatre with a big smile plastered on my face.
What a bunch of talented teens! What a talented Director! Choreographer! Music Director!
I must highly commend Richard S. Blake for creating a show that made me smile, toe tap, hum along, gave me a few chills, and thoroughly entertained me. What made Mr. Blake's accomplishments (and his creative team) so extraordinary was he did it mostly with a cast of teens!
For those unfamiliar with Godspell, this musical follows, for the most part, the
Book of Matthew. The cast, under the guidance of Jesus, acts out the parables. The roles themselves are not that defined. Though Judas and John the Baptist appear, the roles are minimal and these actors double up as followers. Near the end of the musical, The Passion is staged. As each parable is presented there is a musical number. Each of these numbers vary musically: Ragtime, folk, rock n' roll, etc. Structurally, the plot is weak. What unifies the musical is the development and complexity of the parables as they are presented.
If done correctly, by the time we reach the middle of Act Two, the musical presents some of the more complex theology in a new light that might make the audience uncomfortable, for it points out the hypocrisy in those who call themselves Christian. This tension is what fuels the "crowd of followers" to turn against Jesus, thus leading to the Crucifixion. The scene leading up to The Passion is rather short and it gives the viewer a feeling that the "followers" acted rashly.
Once crucified, Jesus performs the Finale with the repetitive lyric "I'm dying" in an ever increasing anguished manner. The overall effect is devastating, if done correctly. In the script there is no resurrection, but frequently a reprise of "Prepare ye for the Lord," "Day by Day", or "Beautiful City" is done to signal this event and to do a curtain call.
While the production at CATS was thoroughly entertaining, the ever-increasing tension didn't develop to its potential zenith. This said, Mr. Blake was able to transform the joviality into an effective somber mood with his strong staging. His "resurrection" scene was one of the best I'd ever seen and did induce chills.
Marlene Bigley's musical direction was excellent. Instrumentally, it was very limited but she was able to capture many of the various flavors of each song. She was also wise in distributing the musical numbers. There are over a dozen musical numbers in Godspell and most productions assign a song to each actor. Not here. While all the cast members did sing at one point or another, she allowed her strongest singers to carry the bulk of the show. And wow, did this production ever have some amazing singers.
Miranda Culp as Peggy had a fabulous stage presence. She also had a way of delivering a song that made her captivating. She understood that singing wasn't just about hitting the notes but expressing an emotion or telling a story.
Audrey Davis played Joanne. At only 17, she had a voice comparable to someone in their late 20's. Her tone was rich, effusive, and masterful. She was required to handle some of the most difficult vocal riffs of this musical and did it effortlessly. Every time she sang I was riveted.
Christine Cornevin gave a wonderful turn as the saucy Sonia. She got the show stopping number "Turn Back, O Man." It was in essence a burlesque number, and the trick was finding the playful sexiness to it without making it seedy. Frequently this number falls flat because the performer over plays the sensuality of the number thus turning it into a trashy song, or else plays it too safely. She did it just right. In fact, I would say this was the best version I had seen done of this song.
In this cast the female singers were stronger then the male singers. This said, the guys imbued their songs with so much character that I was able to forgive the few missed notes. My only quibble was the song "All for the Best." It was sung too softly. This soft shoe number was truly one of the funniest moments in the show, but because the men failed to sing loud enough, we couldn't make out any of the comical lyrics. It was the only musical number that fell flat.
Jesus was played by Raymons Hinds. Could he ever dance! The reason that it is hard for dancers to sing is because in order to sing you must use your diaphragm. In order to dance at an advance level you must use your lateral chest muscles to breathe and not use your diaphragm. While his voice wasn't as rich as some of the other performers, he was still very much a triple threat. To see him dance was a joy. He also was able to communicate all his dialogue in a most natural fashion. Not an easy task when one is quoting scripture. Jesus, as the son of God, knows it all, and in some productions I'd seen Jesus act like a "know it all", which is highly unappealing. In other productions, he was played as somebody slightly off kilter because of his supreme knowledge and that was difficult to relate to as well. Mr. Hinds played him with such effusive charm that he made his Jesus completely believable. His charisma was such that it made it easy for an audience to understand why he developed such impassioned followers.
Zach Wooster's agony and anger as Judas was well played as was Nathan Smith's John the Baptist. These two characters provided some gravitas to the show. Their performances were commendable.
What I especially liked about the show was the enormous use of dance. Godspell is very much a dance musical. The score is chock full of dance sequences, and this production used every note scored for movement. I couldn't praise this cast enough in this area. They kept up with over a dozen dance sequences without losing their place or forgetting a dance step. Could the dancing have been tighter? Yes. But these were teens! They far outshined other versions I'd seen. This was perhaps the best choreographed Godspell I'd seen.
The set created, with its mishmash of platforms, was also well-executed. Visually the set looked almost like a pile of junk. But throughout the play the junk became props, costumes, and locations. It added to the feeling of spontaneity. The costuming was contemporary street clothing, yet there was a unity in the choice of primary and secondary colors that added to the visual appeal. I must give kudos to the costume transformation of Jesus in the resurrection; his appearance in that costume gave me goose bumps.
One interesting design element I found unnecessary in this production was incorporating the use of Facebook onto the stage. Yes, the production was being streamed live via the site and audience members could log on and comment during the show. Their comments were then immediately posted onto a screen that hovered over the stage. I know this was done to engage the audience into the show and make it relevant to today's generation. This didn't work for me. The production was strong enough on its own that it didn't need this gimmick. Granted, this was the "gimmick" used to market the show but it was superfluous. Nonetheless, audience members were engaged posting comments. So while it didn't work for me, it obviously worked for others.
Keep in mind that I'm reviewing a show that was basically performed by high school aged students. For this age group, this was the best production of any play or musical I'd ever seen. Was it comparable to the best Godspell I'd ever seen? No. But it far outshone some of the "professional" productions I'd attended.
Okay. I saved the best for last.
Remember the name Lorens Portalatin, age 18. She gave a seminal performance as Robin. The most famous song from this show is "Day by Day." She was captivating, chill inducing, outstanding, gorgeous, and jaw dropping. From her very first note to the last, she blew me and the audience away. Here was a star in the making. Not only was she a tremendous actor, she was also a sublime singer. What a voice! Words are not enough for me to describe how good she was. She alone made going to see Godspell worthwhile.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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