‘Godspell’ at Port Tobacco Players

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One of the challenges of staging Godspell, Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s charming and oft-revived production of the Gospel according to Matthew, is to find ways to reinvent the story while keeping the message fresh and current. Port Tobacco Players’ production throws together high energy choreography, pop culture references, some stand-out solo performances, and a Grandma’s attic motif in an effort to make Godspell relevant for today’s audiences. Unfortunately, some issues with harmonies and balance between the band and the singers render this production extremely entertaining, but not quite miraculous.

Godspell
Courtesy of the Port Tobacco Players

Port Tobacco Players put together an engaging ensemble cast (Brian Merritt, Patrick Pruitt, Sarah Carlson, Kaitlin Harbin, Taylor Scott Hines, Matt Jameson, Matt Jones, Tanya Kilpatrick, Sarah Koon, Scott LaRue, Liz Mildenstein, and Angelina O’Leary). This cast clearly puts in a lot of love and hard work to deliver the parables of Godspell in a way that will help modern audiences connect to the material. They are all excellent storytellers and help the audience hear the parables with fresh ears.

Kaitlin Harbin, who sings Day by Day, truly shines throughout the evening, delivering a natural, compelling performance full of energy and joy. Her parting from Jesus at the end of Act Two is one of the more moving moments of the evening. Tanya Kilpatrick shows off some serious vocal chops in Bless the Lord, and Sarah Carlson, who sings Learn Your Lessons Well, is a comic delight throughout the show.

As John the Baptist/Judas, Patrick Pruitt delivers a powerful performance. His acting choices are always interesting and he is a commanding presence on stage. Brian Merritt is a charming Jesus. His choice of a Boy Scout costume resonates very clearly with his boyish charm and with the acting choices he makes in the role. He relates beautifully and playfully with the ensemble and audience, and his tenor voice renders a lush and chilling Beautiful City.

Director Ben Simpson’s concept of staging Godspell in an attic is an interesting one, and Set designer Zack Ball, properties master Terri Fortney Beinert, and costume designer Quentin Nash Sagers gamely fall in with this conceit. Everything on the stage from the mismatched wardrobe pieces of various decades to the random items used to tell the parables looks like it might have materialized in Grandma’s attic.

The choreography by director Ben Simpson and assistant choreographer Sarah Jones is bright, bouncy, and intricate, requiring a great deal of finesse from the cast, who cheerfully give it their all. The dancers really let themselves have fun in We Beseech Thee (charmingly led by the engaging Taylor Scott Hines) and the Jesus/Judas duet All for the Best.

When the ensemble hits the harmonies, as in By My Side (gorgeously led by Angelina O’Leary) or Beautiful City, the results are incredibly moving and deliver the emotional punch Godspell devotees have come to expect from the show. Unfortunately, these mountain top moments are not sustained and often the cast is far better musically in their solo appearances than they are when they try to execute the very tight harmonies Schwartz has written into the Godspell score.

The orchestra, led by music director Brian Kuhn, is fantastic and they really let themselves go in On the Willows, Light of the World, and Alas for You. However, the sound balance seemed off at times and the music overwhelmed some of the singers, especially in the more band-driven numbers.

A scene from Godspell
Scene from ‘Godspell.’ Photo courtesy of the Port Tobacco Players.

Overall, director Ben Simpson and his cast have delivered a solid Godspell that falls just short of reaching the heavenly heights. But, even with its imperfections, this Godspell is still an entertaining show.

Running time: approximately 2 1/2 hours with intermission.

Godspell plays through October 12, 2014 at Port Tobacco Players – 508 Charles Street, in La Plata, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 932-6819, or purchase them online.

Here are directions to Port Tobacco Players.

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Diane Jackson Schnoor
Diane Jackson Schnoor is delighted to be back in the DC metro area after nearly two decades away. She earned her BA at The American University, with a minor in theatre arts, and holds a master's and doctorate in elementary education from the University of Virginia. A lifelong devotee of the arts, Diane's reviews and arts feature stories have been published in The Millbrook Independent and DC Metro Theatre Arts. As an actress, Diane has performed with the Cape Fear Regional Theatre, the Fort Bragg Playhouse, TriArts Sharon Playhouse, and in musicals and dance shows in Millbrook, NY, Amenia, NY, and Lakeville, CT. Her day job career has run the gamut from adjunct college faculty to preschool director to public relations director and back again, but her primary occupation these days is as chauffeur to the two young actresses who inhabit her home in Winchester, VA.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I have to completely disagree with you about the music. I saw this show this weekend and I was blown away by the solid harmonies. I have seen many other productions at Port Tobacco and I thought this was by far the strongest musically. Considering almost every song in this show is an ensemble number and every actor had to be a strong soloist, I found it so impressive that this was accomplished as seamlessly as it was. Finally, I thought the band was perfectly balanced throughout the performance. There were 2 moments that I wish I could have heard a little more of the band. My favorite ensemble moments were in Lamp of the Body and in Tower of Babble when the ensemble is working accapella. Overall this performance was fantastic, but I found it to be strongest musically.

    • You may have seen the show this weekend but you may not have seen the same performance. Readers forget that a reviewer reviews one performance. You may come the next day or the day before and the problems that occurred when the reviewer saw his/her performance may not be there.

  2. Personally, I thought the show was fantastic and extremely entertaining. When you take into account that this is Community Theatre and people (performers and musicians) are devoting so much of their time to do what they love, makes these shows even more enjoyable. If they were getting paid to perform then maybe I’d take into account or even be willing to critize and make a comment like “sound balance seemed off at times and the music overwhelmed some of the singers”, but since they are not then lets just applaud these talented people for a job well done. Highly recommend taking an evening out to go and enjoy the show.

    • On this site we treat Community Theatre and professional theatre and children’s theatre as one community and if the sound is not good in any show the reviewer should mention it. This is a 4 star review and that’s pretty darn good. And the reviewer is applauding everyone involved in the production. I saw so many great productions this year in Community Theatres where the sound was perfection so let’s stop making community theatre an excuse for technical mishaps. It’s demeaning to all the fabulous designers who contribute excellent sound, lighting, costumes, sets, etc. in Community Theatre productions.

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