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.
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.
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.
Here are directions to Port Tobacco Players.