A vibrant ‘Godspell’ brings back the joy at Toby’s

A lively reprise of the first show on its stage 41 years ago with the parables updated to the minute.

You only had to hear the ovation that greeted the curtain calls for Godspell at Toby’s Dinner Theatre last evening to realize what an enviable gift Toby Orenstein has for making people happy. This time out, Orenstein credits her appointed heir, Mark Minnick, and her guy-to-go-to for all things theater, David James, who together bring joy in a time when we all could use a little. 

No show is more joyful than Toby’s current production of Godspell, co-directed by Minnick and James with a special nod to musical director Ross Scott Rawlings and his upbeat orchestra that keeps folks tapping and clapping throughout.

Crystal Freeman and the cast singing ‘Bless the Lord’ in ‘Godspell.’ Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Importantly, Orenstein has not forgotten her Columbia roots and appreciation for “The New City” founder, James Rouse, who encouraged her to start the Columbia Theatrical School and organize the Young Columbians, a teenage performance troupe that has appeared at the White House and throughout the East Coast. In her tribute, Orenstein notes, “James [Rouse] brought me to this ‘Beautiful City’ and continually supported my endeavors to enrich, educate and entertain.”

Toby’s Godspell pays tribute to Rouse and his followers, with photos of the People Tree and the Columbia Mall on the side walls of the theater. The optimistic encore “A Beautiful City” welcomes all to live life to the fullest. 

Godspell was the first show on Toby’s stage 41 years ago, and this writer had the privilege to attend opening night. It was followed by a 2004 rendition that earned David James his second Helen Hayes Award, predicted in my column for the Columbia Flier. So I gladly go on record that James will again be nominated…if the Helen Hayes judges manage to cover 2021 shows. 

James provides a lot of the fun romping through some timely political satire, offering a terrific impersonation of President “Sleepy Joe” Biden while another Toby’s veteran performer, Jeffrey Shankle, takes on Trump. In a word, this musical is totally topical. 

The Broadway hit (which had its beginnings at Carnegie Mellon University) is full of sight gags and topical references contributed by the 10-member cast. Even when they overplay a bit, their clever transitions and spoofs keep the show’s enlightened parables rolling along.

Among the mildly naughty bits and playful antics is a burlesque take-off in the number “Turn Back, O Man.” David James shows off his balloon boobies and Heather Beck pops them in perfect timing. It’s exactly what fans expect from this vaudevillian musical.

While the costumes and jokes change with each production of Godspell — the basic story is an account of the last seven days of Jesus’ life — the parables have been updated to the very last minute. Of course a COVID comment pops up — in between the songs “Day by Day” and “All Good Gifts,” beautifully sung by DeCarlo Raspberry. His bellowing voice converted many.

DeCarlo Raspberry singing ‘All Good Gifts’ in ‘Godspell.’ Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

As an all-American Jesus, Justin Calhoun wears a cool jacket with “1″ on the back and funky sneakers, and is prone to setting up jokes and asides à la Groucho Marx. At one point he even serves as host of television’s Millionaire and Family Feud programs.

Jeffrey Shankle pulls off a spot-on impression of Marlon Brando from The Godfather, then Shane Lowry as Judas teams up with Jesus for a one-on-one basketball game where he cheats on the free shot in “All for the Best.” 

Shane Lowry (Judas) and Justin Calhoun (Jesus) singing ‘All for the Best’ in ‘Godspell.’ Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Both actors have worked together long enough to be sensitive to one another’s timing. Yet all the actors work together well, and their fluid give-and-take on stage turns the production into a vibrant, lively experience. 

In the haunting “On the Willows,” Jeffrey Shankle joins Heather Beck and DeCarlo Raspberry for a sensitive blending of voices that reflects genuine human sorrow. Tina Marie DeSimone singing “Learn Your Lessons Well” looks like she is having a ball. Crystal Freeman brings down the house with “O, Bless the Lord, My Soul.”

With her long brown hair flowing down her rainbow shirt and dungarees, MaryKate Brouillet positively radiates joy on stge. Kudos, too, to Janine Sunday for designing the wildly imaginative costumes and singing beautifully, too.

Janine Sunday and the cast singing ‘Day by Day’ in ‘Godspell.’ Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

It’s Calhoun, though, who rightly towers over this staging. There is something especially heartfelt and devotional about his rendition of the songs “Save the People” and “By My Side,” sung with Brouillet and Sunday. 

The production offers other prayer-worthy highlights, though,  with Calhoun and Beck leading the company on “Light of the World.” In “We Beseech Thee,” Jeffrey Shankle and the gang get the crowd clapping in an exciting circle dance choreographed by Mark Minnick. 

Finally a tip of the hat to the small orchestra that rocked last night. The live accompaniment adds a further spiritual component to the sound of the show. Sound Designer John Pantazis deserves credit along with Scenic/Lighting Designer David A. Hopkins. Box Office Manager Tere Fulmer made sure our seats were comfy, and Chef Chuck Cofield and Assistant Kitchen Manager Wanna K. Smith served up a tasty pasta dish with veggies galore. 

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Godspell continues through October 31, 2021, at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Tickets can be purchased directly through the box office by calling 410-730-8311. To purchase tickets online, visit Ticketmaster.com.

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