Godspell has always been a show filled with spirit. Ever since its New York debut in 1971, it’s been a vehicle for a lot more than a religious message. Its loose structure – John-Michael Tebelak’s book recounts of Jesus’ life and teachings through a modern lens – allows for lots of improvisation and invention.
Villanova Theatre’s new production of Godspell adds some funny lines – a parody of a classic movie is particularly rewarding – but it doesn’t go too far; it sticks mostly to the template set by Tebelak and composer Stephen Schwartz. Schwartz’s bouncy, melodic, and eclectic score has stood the test of time, but the hippie-dippie style of Godspell hasn’t aged particularly well; unlike the best musicals, it seems trapped in its original era. Still, Director Matt Pfeiffer makes the most of this shortcoming, delivering an easygoing Godspell with some clever touches, one that’s never less than pleasing.
Much of that pleasure comes from Mina Kawahara as Jesus. Wearing a white gown and an impish smile, she’s endearing even when she gets angry at the unseen Pharisees. She lends a warm alto to numbers like “Save the People,” and even strums a ukulele on the ragtime-style “All for the Best.” Megan Slater, playing both John the Baptist and Judas, is a robust contrast with Kawahara; her clear soprano adds power to “Prepare Ye (The Way of the Lord).”
(Incidentally, Villanova Theatre’s publicity for this production has made much of its gender-blind casting. I should note, however, that I saw a production of Godspell with women in the leading roles just a few miles away from Villanova, at my alma mater Saint Joseph’s University, in 1987. So that aspect doesn’t seem like a big deal to me.)
Many of the remaining ensemble members get moments in the spotlight. Marissa Kennedy’s smoky voice gets a fine showcase on the folkie standard “Day by Day”; Stephen Reaugh shows off a tender tenor on the soaring ballad “All Good Gifts”; the beaming, blissful Kara Krichman belts her way through “O Bless the Lord My Soul”; and Galen Blanzaco vamps her way through the bluesy “Turn Back, O Man.” Peter A. Hilliard leads a capable four-piece band, with various cast members lending a hand on guitar, trumpet, violin and other instruments. Niki Cousineau’s shuffle-heavy choreography is serviceable, though it could use more vitality.
A portable, multi-purpose scaffold dominates Michael Lambui’s set. Jerold R. Forsyth’s lighting conveys moods effectively: it’s bright during the peppy songs, soft during reflective moments, and dominated by harsh reds and blues during the finale. And Jennifer Povish’s diverse costumes, teeming with multi-colored caftans and different styles of hats, establish the show’s idiosyncratic style.
Villanova’s Godspell doesn’t have a lot of surprises, but it’s a cute production of a feel-good musical that’s a lot more sophisticated than you might remember. And the cast performs it with a lot of joyful sincerity.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Godspell plays through Sunday, October 1, 2017 at Villanova Theatre, in Vasey Hall on the Villanova University campus, in Villanova, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (610) 519-7474, or purchase them online.