Review: ‘Godspell’ at NextStop Theatre Company

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NextStop Theatre is reaching the end of their July 2017 to June 2018 “Point and Counterpoint” season. Their third and final show pairing explores the contrasting effects that religious teachings can have on society.

The dark comedy, Bad Jews, will close out the season, highlighting the way religion can bring out the very worst in people. But first, NextStop Theatre presents Godspell, a musical originally conceived by John-Michael Tebelak, with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. The show follows the teachings of Jesus, through a series of parables, and focuses on Jesus’ efforts to find and nurture humanity’s capacity for love, generosity, forgiveness, and compassion.

Alan Naylor and Angeleaza Anderson in Godspell. Photo by Lock & Company.
Alan Naylor and Angeleaza Anderson in Godspell. Photo by Lock & Company.

The ensemble includes ten actors, who represent Jesus (Alan Naylor), John the Baptist and Judas (Bobby Libby), and Jesus’ disciples (Angeleaza Anderson, Philip da Costa, Javier del Pilar, Tess Higgins, Jennifer Lambert, Jolene Vettese, Chani Wereley, AJ Whittenberger). As the parables are told, the group acts out various roles in the stories of the Bible (Solomon, the Good Samaritan, Lazarus, the Pharisees, etc…).

NextStop’s creative team remodeled Godspell’s original 70s “hippie” style into a more modern background. The set, designed by Jack Golden, is a coffee shop called (wait for it) “Holy Grounds,” with small café tables, a sofa, and recliner. A service area runs the length of the upstage wall, with a long counter arranged with standard coffee equipment and miscellaneous items, like cups and lids.

As the show begins, the actors are scattered around the shop buried in their miscellaneous electronic devices. One at a time, an actor begins to read aloud as they type a message that is projected onto one of several screens on the upstage wall (Projection Design by Sean Cox). Messages begin to overlap and soon everyone is speaking at once in a cacophony of virtual conversations taking place in a crowded room where not a single person is interacting with another.  But then a man, who has been quietly observing the display of elective isolation, pulls the wireless router from the wall, disconnecting everyone from the cyber world. This is John the Baptist (Libby).

Director and Choreographer Lorraine Magee made a brilliant choice with this interpretation of the opening sequence, which resonates with our current world of countless online connections that supersede human interaction. The addition of electronics as a blinding factor to society allows a deeper understanding of the show for those audience members who may not connect as closely to the religious material.

As the show proceeds, the characters willingly give up their devices and change into costumes (designed by Maria Bissex), which signify the varying personalities of people -from a baseball player to a cowboy to an explorer- but also their transformation into followers of Jesus. From there the lessons begin.

Alan Naylor and the cast of Godspell. Photo by Lock & Company.
Alan Naylor and the cast of Godspell. Photo by Lock & Company.

You don’t have to be an avid believer in Jesus to appreciate the production’s overall positive message and musical score. Elisa Rosman plays in and conducts the live orchestra, and also serves as musical director. Under her guidance, the songs exude an energy that is only further enhanced by the ensemble’s contagious joy throughout the performance.

The show is mostly light-hearted and fun and is wholly dependent on the cast’s commitment to conveying the message of the show. In a cast so small, weak links can stand out like a sore thumb but this group is immune to that. With the help of Magee’s popping choreography, the ensemble possesses the energy and excitement of a group of kids after a Halloween candy raid.

A production with such a solid group of performers makes it hard to identify standouts, but that is the best kind of problem to have in a show.

Naylor’s Jesus radiates compassion and a desire to guide his followers to a better way of living. He is a pure soul: free of judgment, and embodying the perfect simplicity of a life led by love. Naylor has a stunningly rich voice and sings the aching and gorgeous “Beautiful City.”

Wereley has a compelling presence: my focus was constantly drawn toward her. Aside from her amazing vocals in the show-stopping number, “Bless the Lord,” Wereley can make just putting on a pair of boots a production in and of itself (it may be the most hilariously impressive thing I’ve ever seen).

And Jennifer Lambert is all sex and sass in “Turn Back, O Man.” Her dulcet voice teases the audience and underscores her ability to take complete command of the stage, when desired.

The second act of the show takes a more serious turn, acting out Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and the final days leading up to the crucifixion. For all the laughter and good times of the show, this part is brutal. But it is necessary for the journey of the show, displaying that even through such heartbreak, the overarching moral of love above all else is what the people return to their lives with.

The show was technically flawless, aside from an obvious delay in the text messaging projections towards the beginning of the show, but that seemed like a glitch that would be corrected.

NextStop’s production of Godspell is an uproarious success, and I laughed until I cried on several occasions. The cast is incredible and the music is uplifting, creating those amazing moments when you just to have to close your eyes and listen, absorbing the notes into your body.

Despite the show’s obvious religious theme, the takeaway of the musical is love. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Love whenever possible. I don’t think it’s possible for a person’s life to have too much love. And this production is full of love in every aspect of its execution.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission.

Godspell plays through April 1, 2018, at NextStop Theatre Company – 269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.