Review: ‘Godspell’ at W.T. Woodson High School

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Stephen Schwartz’s often treacly Godspell, conceived by book writer John-Michael Tebelak, is a parade of parables borrowed from the New Testament’s Matthew and Luke set to a hippie-chic Seventies vibe.

The cast of 'Godspell.' Photo courtesy of Woodson High School.
The cast of ‘Godspell.’ Photo by Pam Hardin.

In the masterful hands of W.T. Woodson High School Artistic Director Terri J. Hobson, though, it is a heartwarming kaleidoscope of teachable moments. It is the school’s most frequently performed show in its history (since the early Sixties), but Hobson breathes new life into the cheerful chestnut by setting it on a playground “to bring out the ‘play’ in this play,” she explains. The effect is a muting of the show’s typical clownishness. It still sparkles, but with the genuine blush of youth and wonderment. And at times it’s like a revival meeting, with the audience moved by the spirit.

The show begins in prologue with the house lights up, as players wander onstage to populate giant, impressive apparatus: swings, seesaws, slide, sandbox, merry-go-’round, geodesic dome. A riff of funny “Thou Shalts” follows, instructing the audience in etiquette. Immediately they feel part of the community, as if parked at the park, pining for the carefree days of yesteryear.

For your average modern high-schooler, of course, the era of bell-bottoms and (original) high-tops might seem as ancient as the text the work is based on, circa A.D. 70. But this bouncy and bold ensemble of 70-plus thespians and musicians is so beyond average.

Vocally, primarily. Music Director Michael L. Ehrlich sculpts exceptional soloists into a heavenly chorus – one that grows richer even without the miked principals onstage. The eight-part “Prologue/Tower of Babble” – not always included in most productions because of its high degree of difficulty – lays out conflicting philosophical arguments on God’s existence. It’s a dialectic that validates the benefits of arts in our schools! We hear from Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Galileo, Sartre, even L. Ron Hubbard and Marianne Williamson, among others, who mix and mash into rousing rabble-babble, until John the Baptist (a solemn Paul Hardin) interrupts with that familiar fanfare from the back of the auditorium: “Prepare ye …”

Jacob Lamb as Jesus. Photo by Pam Hardin.
Jacob Lamb as Jesus. Photo by Pam Hardin.

But we aren’t quite prepared for the maturity of talent on display. Jacob Lamb portrays an authoritative Jesus, whose lectures are laced with tough love. His tender tenor never tires. The show is built around him, and he shoulders that burden as dutifully and graciously as Jesus might. He moves fluidly from a jiggy soft-shoe duet with Judas (“All for the Best”) to rapping a scolding, scalding “Alas for You.”

Madi Sarlo (Madi) impresses with a natural actor’s gift – none of the “drama” that many teens resort to in emulating what they’ve seen on YouTube. She’s thoroughly committed. Her male counterpart in technique might be Michael Richardson (Michael), a standout comic.

Madi Sarlo and Merritt Palmer and company in "By My Side." Photo by Pam Hardin.
Madi Sarlo and Merritt Palmer and company in “By My Side.” Photo by Pam Hardin.

Six-foot-four Nick Daché (Nick) is flippin’ awesome, both as showman and gymnastic star.

Jesus’ nine “disciples” are easily differentiated by the costume designs of Elizabeth Rolen and Caroline Orejuela, also a dynamic Robin (“Day By Day,” “On the Willows”). Ensemble players are in a rainbow of solid-color T-shirts, with contrasting triangles of colorful fabric sewn into the bottom of their jeans for that proper flare. Lamb gets the characteristic T-shirt with Superman-esque logo, but how fun that it’s one of the cast’s “show shirts,” with original logo affixed. This implies exceptional humility; he blends in with the masses while standing out. Of and for the people.

The “named” characters (mostly using their own real names) each have distinctive outfits that scream individuality. Judas (an expressionistic Marc Manaloto) sports a vest, denoting the personal assistant, as part of a stark black-and-white ensemble — good-and-evil, two-faced?

Gracie (Gracie Malin) is as vixen-y as it gets. For her sinful solo, “Turn Back, Oh Man,” the stage is awash in red – a blatant but effective statement by Lighting Designers Brian Ward and Miles Maline, who keep the rainbows and moonbeams churning. Most arresting are the frozen silhouettes of the players on the playground equipment, black on blue – an unforgettable tableau.

Hard to believe that pianist Hunter Browning, who flawlessly anchors the three-piece combo, is also a student. Soundtrack-worthy. Though drums are listed in the program, there are none – the spareness is something of a relief to better showcase powerhouse sopranos Caroline Grass (“O Bless the Lord”) and Merritt Palmer — who eloquently plumbs feelings of repentance and loss in her duet with Madi (“By My Side”), when the reality of Jesus’ earthly fate too soon sets in, triggering tears throughout the theater.

The treat of the evening comes when Jack Hopewell (Jack/ Jesus’ understudy), with rock-star aura and angelic pipes, grabs a guitar to accompany himself on “All Good Gifts,” also featuring a divine flute solo by Marie Korn. And Hopewell’s second-act reprise of “Learn Your Lessons Well,” in which he infiltrates the audience zone, drives home the “Point of It All.”

Nick Dache in center in "We Beseech Thee." Photo by Pam Hardin.
Nick Dache in center in “We Beseech Thee.” Photo by Pam Hardin.

For all the work’s goofiness – often veering toward vaudevillian – this Woodson troupe consistently taps a deeper well. Hobson and Student Director Ellen Oordt clearly have established an environment of trust; the actors brave stale jokes and up-with-people formations while applying layers of sophistication, through pantomime, inflection, reflection and reflexes trained beyond their comfort zones. The story of the Prodigal Son is particularly camp and delightful.

Such fast-driving parables become mini-drills in improv class, merging the storytellers of olde with those freshest on the scene. After all, our required lessons haven’t changed much in the span of millennia: We’re still trying to teach how to treat one another civilly, how to be non-judgmental, how to navigate life’s trickiest transactions (the show equates tax collection with prostitution?) … and, most important, how to forgive transgressions, both of others and in ourselves.

And no matter what you believe, even if theater is your only religion, that’s the Godspell truth.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 20-minute intermission.

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Godspell plays through November 12, 2016 (five performances remain, including an understudy showcase on November 5 at 2 p.m.), at W.T. Woodson High School’s Joan C. Bedinger Auditorium – 9525 Main Street, in Fairfax, VA. Purchase tickets onlineor buy them at the door.