From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2
By James V. Ruocco
This amazing cast of ten bring real rock concert pulse and vibe to Ivoryton Playhouse’s impassioned retelling of “Godspell,” the 1971 Stephen Schwartz musical that takes its cue from a random series of accessible parables, freely adapted from “The Gospel According to Matthew.”
Quick Witted and Emotional.
This “Godspell” not only has a beautiful, enriched harmony about it, but it is accompanied by a clear-sighted, modern-day vision that is assertive, commanding, visionary and palpable. And that is exactly what sets it apart from other productions of the same name.
If this incarnation is altogether more endearing and trail blazing in execution, that’s because it has been directed by Jacqueline Hubbard, the award-winning executive/artistic director of Ivoryton Playhouse. Celebrating 25 years at the theater, she brings a savvy, intuitive mindset to every play or musical she has directed along with a directorial dynamic, rich in execution, invention, illumination and rediscovery.
So who better than Hubbard to direct “Godspell?”
For this interpretation, she uses the reworked, licensed 2012 version of the show, which includes the stirring ballad “Beautiful City” from the 1973 film and better yet, she opens the show with “Tower of Babble,” a weighty, important musical number almost always omitted from every production of “Godspell,” but lovingly restored here at Ivoryton. That song, a ground-breaker of sorts, immediately sets the tone for what’s to follow, using some some very intricate, imaginative staging by Hubbard that not only makes the first 10 minutes of the musical sizzle and resonate, but also introduces the very different, colorful characters who play a key role in the recognizable Jesus/ Judas story and the many parables conceived and re-imagined by playwright John-Michael Tebelak who also wrote for the book for the original 1971 production of “Godspell.”
Staging “Godspell,” Hubbard breathes new life into the oft-produced musical, using a refreshing honesty and unified vibrancy that other productions seem to miss. Mind you, this is not just any romp through the gospels. With Hubbard as its interpreter, the show’s message of love and acceptance in a much darker world hits home significantly and carries lots of well-orchestrated humor, joy, pathos and tears with it. Alas, her observations, depiction and treatment of the material are specific, detailed, and performed without any whiff of calculation.
Using the refitted 2012 play script, Hubbard gives the musical a rapid-fire eagerness that works especially well, now that “Godspell” has been given a much-needed makeover. Moreover, she doesn’t clutter the production with unnecessary shtick or silly, contrived, slightly improvised staging that detracts from the show’s strung-together parables and Schwartz’s breezy “Godspell” musical score. This conceit is applied to scene after scene and song after song. Mind you, there is some playful vaudevillian humor interspersed here and there, but it’s straightforward and direct without that annoying overkill that made other “Godspell” revivals tiresome, clunky and amateurish. Hubbard’s vision is well thought out, well timed and smartly crafted. She knows exactly what she wants. Her cast follows her cue and runs with it. And the energy level of everyone involved, is completely and honestly refreshing.
For “Godspell,” Hubbard has enlisted the talents of choreographer Todd Underwood whose Ivoryton Playhouse credits include “Rent,” “West Side Story,” “Saturday Night Fever” and last season’s “A Chorus Line” and “Grease.” The perfect candidate to bring the “Godspell” story to life in terms of dance, Underwood’s playful choreography is both appealing, intuitive and stylish. Given Schwartz’s trademark score, he crafts potent, powerfully performed staging that makes every choreographed number, vivid and individual.
Banish all thoughts of overkill or hotshot extravagance with Underwood at the helm. Whereas other choreographers tend to overemphasize the “Godspell” material to the point of sheer ridiculousness using doodlebug flourishes and rattling movements and tableaux’s that have absolutely nothing to do with the story at hand, Underwood’s showman’s chutzpah is vaudevillian, respectful, controlled and perfectly in sync with Schwartz’s conceit for “Godspell” and the choices dictated by the music and the characters who populate the parabalstic story.
As “Godspell” unfolds, Underwood lets his talented ensemble cast swim and frolic through “Tower of Babble,” “Turn Back, O Man,” “Prepare Ye,” “Light of the World” and “Learn Your Lessons Well,” among others, with optimistic, powerful and creative abandon. Bodies blend, embrace and support, creating unified movements, prances and jaunty feats that dazzle or stand alone individually. Or they simply groove with ease, swirl, dip or twirl, spin and jump depending on the number at hand or the music’s percussive prompting. It’s all very versatile, unique and completely in harmony with the show’s gospel parables and teachings of important lessons through song, dance, speech and movement.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, “Godspell” contains 18 musical numbers. They are “Prologue,” “Tower of Babble,” “Prepare Ye,” “Save the People,” “Day By Day,” “Learn Your Lessons Well,” “Bless the Lord,” “All For the Best,” “All Good Gifts,” “Light of the World,” “Learn Your Lessons Well (Reprise),” “Turn Back, O Man,” “Alas For You,” “”By My Side,” “We Beseech Thee,” “Beautiful City,” “On the Willows” and “Finale.”
Then and now, Schwartz knows how to craft songs that are well worth listening to. His gift for melody and lyrical representation is effective and seasoned. There’s also a truthfulness to his musicality, most noticeable in how a song functions in a show, how it is positioned and how it drives the storytelling forward unobtrusively.
At Ivoryton, musical direction for “Godspell” is provided by Michael Morris whose previous work at the Playhouse includes “Dreamgirls,” “Rent,” “A Night with Janis Joplin” and “A Chorus Line.” Doubling at the keyboards and as conductor, he creates a shimmering aura of melody and rhythmic melodrama that is lucid, sweet, endlessly colorful and often pillow-soft. The pop-rock charm of Schwartz’s popular musical score is revitalized with youthful exuberance and connective eagerness. There’s also a raw eclecticism to the music that is funky, folksy, glam and marshmallow fluffy.
Working alongside his trio of handpicked, talented musicians – Billy Bivona on guitars, David Uhl on bass and Alex Giosa on percussion and drums – Morris makes every moment of the “Godspell” musical songbook uplifting and memorable. Its coruscating energy is fueled by festive glitter and sheen, ripe piquancy, heartfelt shivers and waves and nicely layered imaginative rhythms, beats and tonalities. This musical quartet also brings a freshly minted sound to such such hummable treats as “Day By Day,” “Turn Back, O Man,” “Beautiful City” “Save the People” and “By My Side.” There’s so much to marvel at, the audience happily sits there transfixed, quietly enjoying and savoring the impressive power of the “Godspell” orchestral sound and its tremendous vitality.
“Godspell” stars Sam Sherwood as Jesus and Carson Higgins as John the Baptist/Judas. Sam Given, Lilly Tobin, Jerica Exum, Josh Walker, Morgan Morse, Gabriella Saramago, Kedrick Faulk and Kaileah Hankerson represent the followers.
Sam Sherwood, in the role of Jesus, is handsome, smiley-faced, passionate and three-dimensional, which is exactly what the part calls for. Here, as in last season’s “Once,” he oozes plenty of innate charm and warmth and works hard to get everything right, which he does. Vocally, he impresses with a pitch-perfect sound, most noticeable in “Beautiful City,” “Save the People” and “Alas For You.” He also naturally connects with everyone in the cast, which, in order for “Godspell” to work its magic, is mandatory. In the dual role of Judas and John the Baptist, Carson Higgins is strong voiced and commanding. There’s lots of edge and angst to his interpretation along with an obvious vulnerability and complexity. His vocal rendition of “Prepare Ye” is both honest and dynamic, as is his well-delivered “All For the Best” duet with Sherwood.
From “A Chorus Line” to “Godspell,” Sam Given takes you on a supercharged journey into make-believe that’s full-throttle, fast-paced, beautifully persuasive, sweet and honeyed and supremely confident. From his first entrance in the show to his powerhouse Act II solo turn “Turn Back, O Man,” which he performs with wild abandon, Given delivers the goods – and then some – with a determined to conquer persona that’s fantastically entertaining, full of sparkle, rich in character and clearly inspired.
What’s especially gratifying about Given is that he’s completely genuine, comically and dramatically expressive and entertainingly electrifying. At the same time, he dances to his own tune as he dons his signature Millie Grams wig, costuming, make-up and glitter to build and solidify a female characterization of attitude, spunk, polish and soulful passion guaranteed to drive any audience wild.
Given, in drag, is a brilliant dance off between appearance and reality, fraught with resilience, emotion, diversity and glitter ball magic. It’s so wonderfully balanced and enacted, if anyone is doing “Mame,” Sam is your man. Just think of the possibilities. The pose, the look, the performance, the songs, the character. Given can do it blindfolded.
Rounding out the “Godspell” cast are Lily Tobin, Jerica Exum, Morgan Morse, Kedrick Faulk, Kalieah Hankerson, Josh Walker and Gabriella Saramago. They also contribute greatly to the musical’s greatness as both ensemble players and soloists, all of whom get their moment to shine in musical numbers ranging from “Day By Day” and “Light of the World” to “Learn Your Lessons Well” and “Bless the Lord.” All seven bring a bit of brilliance, elan and peppy vibe to “Godspell.” They also seem to be enjoying themselves, which in a musical of this nature, goes a very long way.
The only theater to get “Godspell’ right in the last decade or so, this Ivoryton Playhouse presentation is timeless, spiritual, lively and original. It turns the story of Jesus and his followers into something both earnest and meaningful. The music is rich and melodic. The atmospheric set design by Martin Scott Marchitto is outstanding. Cully Long’s costumes are both imaginative and colorful. Hubbard, Underwood and Morris are the perfect creative trifecta. The cast is sensational. And the show’s reworked once-over and radical kick, allows it to pulse and resonate with today’s audience. That said, you haven’t seen “Godspell” until you see it at Ivoryton.
“Godspell” is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through June 16. For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318
Noah Golden, Associate Connecticut Critic
Unfortunately, shake-ups in the critic’s roster at OnStage meant I hadn’t visited The Ivoryton Playhouse for a quite a while. But as my ’18-’19 theatergoing season comes to a close, it felt important to check up on Ivoryton, a company that has been a Connecticut mainstay since its opening in 1930. I’ve seen many shows there over the years, both as critic and audience member, and they’ve always produced consistently polished, top-notch work that seems to focus more on maintaining high standards for classic shows and presenting professional versions of sunny modern favorites rather than mounting works that make political statements or that reimagine the source material. Even their decision a few years back to stage “Rent” – a rock musical that last felt controversial in the Reagan era – was met with grumbles from a portion of their subscriber base.
But I’m happy to report that their thoroughly winning “Godspell” not just keeps the Playhouse’s high standards but infuses it with a youthful and slyly political edge. There is nothing dusty or recreated in Jacqueline Hubbard’s joyous and spritely production of the 1971 Stephen Schwartz/John-Michael Tebelak musical. A community theater staple and oft-revived favorite, “Godspell’s” chameleon-like structure allows for each director and cast to put their own stamp on the show, so the success largely rests on a strong creative concept. Ivoryton’s “Godspell” (thankfully) does away with the hippy-clown shtick that often suffocates the play and sets the show in some version of the present. When the disparate group that will eventually gel into the apostles enters onto Martin Marchitto’s urban decay set, they wear contemporary outfits (by Cully Long) that wouldn’t seem out of place outside the proscenium. Morgan Morse is decked out in Brooklynite hipster attire while Jerica Exum looks on her way to a yoga class. Kaileah Hankerson and Gabriella Saramago don security guard and maid uniforms, respectively, while Sam Givens appears in stylish drag. The others – Kendrick Faulk, Lily Tobin, Josh Walker and Carson Higgins (John/Judas) – although less stylized, follow suit.
Once Jesus (Sam Sherwood) appears, crawling out of a sewer grate in ratty, beggar attire before being made over by John The Baptist’s holy water and some American Eagle-like apparel, the succession of song and parable begins. While not every joke lands (there are a few corny clunkers in the 50-year-old book), the cast is so energetic and spirited you don’t really notice. Attention was clearly made to make each new parable stylistically different and fresh, including some pop-culture-heavy underscoring (the “Law and Order” theme, as well as some Queen, made an aural appearance) while varied props and pieces like a sawhorse, wooden beams, a plunger, and an old umbrella were used in inventive, fun ways. For a show that can sometimes feel scattershot, this one was incredibly tight and brisk without a wasted moment. Hubbard and lighting designer Marcus Abbott also do wonders in using every inch of the set – from abandoned stoops to trash piles to a fire escape and even an ingenious bit with a fire hydrant – to constantly create new stage pictures that never feel too polished or manicured. If one can find fault with the wordier parts of this “Godspell,” it would be that the ensemble – as enthusiastic and charming as they are – occasionally veer into unnecessary mugging, leaving the emotional balance a bit lopsided. If the apostles toned down the funny voices and rubbery-faced antics by ten percent, the change from happy-go-lucky communal tribe to the eventual grief over Jesus’ betrayal and death would feel smoother and more organic. Both the silly and serious parts of “Godspell” are handled well, but there’s a noticeable tonal whiplash between them.
But the real success of this or any “Godspell” rests in the music, and there Ivoryton doesn’t disappoint. Using the fabulous, updated orchestrations from the 2011 Broadway revival and played by a rocking four-piece band (lead by Michael Morris), Stephen Schwartz’s eclectic score still feels unbelievably fresh and engaging. Each number is well delivered, with Faulk’s stirring “All Good Gifts,” Exum’s jubilant “Bless The Lord” and Morse’s rocking “Light Of The World” standing out. Then again, how can you leave out Given’s saucy, spirited “Turn Back, O Man,” hilarious ad-libs to the (mostly geriatric and somewhat uncomfortable) men in the aisle included? Sherwood, endearingly at ease and friendly as Jesus, also beautifully delivers “Beautiful City” and the haunting finale with a tightly coiled vibrato and occasional rasp that brought to mind a young Raul Esparza. When the whole company is singing together, playing their own instruments and performing Todd Underwood’s suitably freeform choreographer, it’s unabashedly fun and joyous.
Yes, “Godspell” is an enjoyable and silly showcase, but under all the merriment Hubbard’s production is smart and thoughtful in the ways it makes the show feel like a piece that belongs in 2019. The show opens to news reports about global warming, North Korea and immigration. One parable includes mention of equal pay for equal work, and there are a few prerequisite Trump jabs. But the most politically-minded thing isn’t the new soundbites and jokes, it’s the seamlessly diverse group Hubbard has assembled to retell these timeless biblical messages of inclusion and peace. When Jesus gathers his devoted followers – black, brown and white, queer and straight, short and tall – and tells them “so be devoted to one another and rejoice in hope. Give with simplicity. Show mercy with cheerfulness. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with love,” he’s talking to all of us, no matter how different we may look and how varied our backgrounds might be. It’s a message we need more now than ever.
“Godspell” runs at Ivoryton Playhouse through June 16. “Godspell,” originally conceived and directed by John-Michael Tebelak with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, is directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Jacqui Hubbard and features musical directed by Michael M. Morris, choreographed by Todd L. Underwood, set design by Martin Marchitto, costumes by Cully Long and lighting design by Marcus Abbott. The cast includes: Sam Sherwood (Jesus), Carson Higgins (Judas), Sam Given, Morgan Morse, Lilly Tobin, Jerica Exum, Kedrick Falk, Kaileah
Reviewed by Tony Annicone
Ivoryton Playhouse’s current show is “Godspell.” Based on the Gospel of St. Matthew and featuring a score by Stephen Scwartz, “Godspell” brings the parables of Jesus Christ to life. The show draws on various theatrical traditions, such as clowning, pantomime, charades, acrobatics and vaudeville. It is a groundbreaking and unique reflection on the life of Jesus, with a message of kindness, tolerance and love. “Godspell’s” timeless message has always been about finding your quiet, unshakeable faith amid a very cold and very shallow modern world. The comic and poignant moments are blended together splendidly by director Jacqui Hubbard with many current topical references in it. She assembles a 10 member cast to fit all these roles while Michael Morris taught the music to them with his topnotch 4 piece orchestra. The choreography by Todd L. Underwood contains many different styles of dance including soft shoe, modern and jazz. The show is rewarded with a resounding standing ovation at the curtain call.
The unique thing about this production is that it is a more intimate musical to tug on your heartstrings as well as make you laugh at all the right moments. The second act is much stronger than the first act. Sam Sherwood stars as Jesus and is perfectly cast in this role and has a terrific voice. One of his dramatic numbers is “Alas for You” where the words still resonate to this very day. “This nation, this generation will bear the guilt of it all! Alas, Alas, Alas for you! Blind Fools.” It rings true in 2019 as it did back in biblical times as well as in the 1970’s when this show was first written. Sam’s first song is “Save the People” where the cast dances around him. He also has some light and funny moments during the parables and during “All For the Best” duet with Judas. However it is during the Last Supper tableau and the death scene that strike a chord with the audience, leaving not a dry eye in the house including mine. A new song written for the updated show is “Beautiful City”, a beautiful ballad which is rendered marvelously by Sam. It’s his best and most dramatic song in the show. He made me cry the minute he started singing it as well as making many others around me to cry, too. Sam and the whole cast give heartfelt performances in this production.
Two minor points are the opening Philosophers section needs to be tighter with the harmonies and “By My Side” needs more oomph to it. Hubbard gives each of her performers their moments to shine in the show. The first act is more vaudevillian then the second which turns more somber after “Turn Back O Man.” Carson Higgins sings the role of John the Baptist with his powerful gospel voice as he walks through the audience and also does a dynamic job as Judas who betrays Jesus later in the show. Sherwood and Higgins stop the show with their comic “All For the Best” number while they sing in counterpoint with each other. Higgins is comical while doing tricks with the audience but it’s his “On the Willows” that will leave you crying buckets of tears as each character says their goodbyes to Jesus. I last reviewed him as the Dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors” at Ivoryton.
“Day by Day” is given a lovely rendition by Lily Tobin with her lovely voice while the Apostles learn to share with each other. Josh Walker does a couple of rousing numbers. His first is at the opening of Act 2 when he plays keyboards on stage leading the chorus in “Learn Your Lessons Well” and the second is “We Beseech Thee” with a dynamite dance. A group dance occurs as Jerica Exum sings out “Bless the Lord” with her soprano voice.The betrayal scene is a stunning moment, too as Judas kisses Jesus during a rendition of “By My Side” by Kaileah Hankerson. She plays a boss firing people ala the Apprentice TV show. Gabriella Saramago belts out “Learn Your Lessons Well” with her strong gospel voice. She also plays the ukulele during it. Sherwood sings the middle section of the song while the cast does a dance to it.
The most dramatic moment comes with the tear jerking “On The Willows” during The Last Supper as Jesus says goodbye to each of his Apostles. My favorite comic song in the show is “Turn Back O Man.” It’s a show stopping number rendered splendidly by Sam Given in drag. He enters through the crowd while interacting with them. Given is splendid in this gender bending role and does a marvelous Carol Channing impression during the show. He also did a dynamite job in “A Chorus Line” as Bobby last year. Another comic performer is Morgan Morse who also sings “You Are the Light of the World” to end Act 1. He does the Prodigal Son parable with a variety of voices. Morse has one of the best singing voices in the show while Kedrick Faulk’s voice soars off the charts in “All Good Gifts.” The whole cast sings the poignant “Long Live God” and “Prepare Ye” in counterpoint to close this version of the show as well as the meaningful “Beautiful City”, too. Another heart wrenching scene is “The Crucifixion.” The ending of the show will leave you emotionally drained at its intensity but uplifted because Jesus left us hope for the future. In these trying and tumultuous times who could ask for anything better for this world.
So for a splendid production of “Godspell” be sure to catch it performed wonderfully at the historic lvoryton Playhouse.
GODSPELL (22 May to 16 June)
Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton, CT
1(860)767-9520 or www.ivorytonplayhouse.org