Do you remember when “psychedelic” and “flower power” were prevalent in the American vocabulary? It doesn’t really matter, because Olney Theatre Center’s tuneful and energetic production of Godspell can be enjoyed by theatre lovers of all ages. Originally produced off-Broadway in 1971, with music by Stephen Schwartz and book by John-Michael Tebelak, Godspell is a joyful and incredibly funny retelling of the gospel according to St. Matthew.
Under the brilliant direction of Jason King Jones, this production provides a bright and bouncy look at the universal themes of love and kindness and morality. Except for a few necessarily serious and somber moments, Godspell is a wonderful comedic event—seamlessly combining sophisticated satire with physical comedy—along with fabulous song and dance numbers in a variety of musical styles.
Paige A. Hathaway’s scenic design is extremely effective and amazingly clever. The play opens on a lonely country highway, complete with utility poles and lane striping. On the side of the road there is what appears to be a billboard with a canvas drape. The ensemble members arrive one by one, carrying suitcases and finding handbills and flyers and a wireless radio espousing various moral philosophies. Suddenly, a red pick-up truck drives in from stage left and a woman carrying a bullhorn exits the truck and sings the regal march tune, “Prepare the Way of the Lord.”
In a creative casting decision, the woman is the tremendously talented Rachel Zampelli who plays both John the Baptist and Judas with an impressive emotional range. Zampelli’s voice is clear and compelling, with an added element of sweetness. Jesus then arrives, played by the ultra-talented Jordan Coughtry who sings the thrilling “Save the People.” Throughout the show, Coughtry’s voice is rich and beautiful; his dancing is effortlessly athletic; and his comedy is hilarious!
Although Coughtry and Zampelli are the leads, Godspell is very much an ensemble show and every performer is a consummate singer, dancer, and comedian. The incredible ensemble includes Kurt Boehm, Maggie Donnelly, Mchael J. Mainwaring, Calvin McCullough, Christopher Mueller, Allie Parris, Nova Y. Payton, and Emily Zickler.
For example, Parris is incandescent as she sings the soulful and powerful ballad, “Day by Day” and Mainwaring is splendid in leading the fantastic production number, “Light of the World.” Mueller turns in a stellar performance with “O, Bless the Lord, my Soul” and McCullough brings the house down as he belts out “All Good Gifts” with confidence and ease. Payton is fabulous as she gets down and dirty– complete with a feather boa—in the sultry blues song, “Turn Back, O Man” with a little help from a male member of the audience. The entire cast almost literally stops the show with the syncopated 1920s-style soft shoe number, “All for the Best.” The number includes an unbelievably challenging up-tempo section that is reminiscent of a fast-talking auctioneer and it is performed flawlessly. And remember, this is just a small sample of the musical delights in this production!
Most of the narrative of Godspell is told in parables which are familiar to many of the audience members, such as “The Good Samaritan,” “Turn the Other Cheek,” and “The Prodigal Son.” What is unexpected is the cast illustrating the parables with side-splitting comedy and creativity. There are parodies of classic television shows, such as Family Feud, The Dating Game, and Charlie’s Angels, and references to Broadway shows including Les Miserables and Flashdance.
For example, there is “The Neighbor Game” with your host, Mary Magdelene, along with a man who has been assaulted on the highway and three bachelors. When the cast skillfully described the Prodigal Son story, the audience members were laughing so hard that they can hardly breathe. And, when the ensemble is divided into categories of sheep and goats, the scene is so funny that even some of the performers couldn’t keep from breaking up briefly!
Getting back to the music, the song, “We Beseech Thee” is the centerpiece of the show. It is a stunning and delightful production number and many audience members are “dancing” in their seats. Kudos to the talented choreographer, Bryan Knowlton, and also to Sonya Dowhaluk whose excellent lighting design plays an integral part in this scene.
Congratulations are due to Musical Director Christopher Youstra who leads a tremendously talented six-member orchestra which complements, but never overshadows the on-stage performers. Some of the musicians even get into the act once in a while!
Even if you have seen other productions of Godspell, you will definitely want to see this one! It is new, exciting, vibrant, imaginative, and hilarious! Olney Theatre Center’s entertaining Godspell combines first-class performers, talented musicians, an expert production crew, and an artistic creative team in a “heavenly” blend. It is not to be missed.
Running Time: About two hours and 5 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.