Long before Stephen Schwartz wrote about a wicked witch, he took on the Book of Matthew in the controversial and revolutionary musical Godspell. The musical was updated for a 2012 Broadway revival that The Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at The Catholic University of America tackles for their winter musical.
The pop culture references are definitely modern – with shoutouts to the movie Mean Girls, pop tarts, Chipotle, and more, but the episodic, wandering nature of the plot is the same with fables from the new testament acted out between power ballads to the glory of God. And nobody writes an inspirational power ballad like Stephen Schwartz. The highlights of the show were the beautiful “Day By Day” and “Light of the World.” The cast also handled the harder musicality of the syncopated “All for the Best” and the opening, dissident, and a cappella “Prologue.” Much of the revolutionary spirit has been tempered in what is now a long running hit, but the 12 young performers in this production breathed new life and energy into every song in a production that had them running and dancing through the aisles at every opportunity.
Director and Choreographer Pauline Grossman has drawn great performances from them for this ensemble piece. She is a long-time force in local theater, regularly choreographing at The Kennedy Center and theaters around DC, and fills this production with some classic moves probably not seen since the 70s. She and Eleanor B. Dicks designed the outlandish costumes with Jesus in Superman boxers, Judas in green suspenders, and the rest of the cast decked out like a colorful thrift shop advertisement. It’s also a testament to The Catholic University Musical Theatre Department that they could find such a large collection of triple-threats: the acting, the singing, and the dancing were all above par.
Of course, the lynchpin is Jesus (Luke Garrison) with a pleasing tenor on his numbers “Save the People” and “Alas For You.” He turns in a subtle performance as Jesus, with a focus on the dry wit of the piece, which saves it a little from the extreme piety. Hasani Allen (John the Baptist/Judas) steals the show though. He is a powerful talent with some serious pipes and presence on the heartbreaking “On the Willows.” Other standouts include Lance Hayse, who has some serious moves, and Dani Ebbin, who brings the house down on “Turn Back, O Man.” John Sygar and James Tarrant also have some great comic chops. The great thing about Godspell is that every cast member gets his or her moment in the sun. These talented performers are Kristin Cardinal, Erica Clare, Kelly Craige, Greg Gardner, Tess Owen, and Catherine Purcell.
The set by Dominic Traino is a huge collection of furniture and even more outlandish costumes the cast uses to set the scene of each teaching tale, lit with true skill by Michelle Mann. With dynamic musical numbers, dramatic highs and lows, and each separate play within a play, the lighting had a lot of work to do. “Learn Your Lessons Well” is a standout with its clever use of flashlights.
Music Director, Conductor, and Pianist Marc B. Lilly, another DC institution, has great fun with his skilled pit orchestra, who play together long before and after the actors take the stage. He skillfully manages both voice and instrument in the Ward Recital Hall, which is a major acoustical challenge.
It was great fun to see these young performers take on this much-beloved classic. Some of them seemed surprised when folks in the audience could sing along with the iconic songs.
This high-energy production of Godpell, with a cast of well-trained and talented performers, is a worthy addition to the Godspell canon.
Running time: Two hours and 15-minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.