Sunday, March 22, 2009
opening-weekend review of *Godspell*
at the Civic's Studio Theater through April 11
Either you feel the spirit or you don't. Godspell speaks to human emotions, and it shouldn’t be intellectualized. So here's one human's emotional response to director Troy Nickerson’s production: During the silly parable re-enactments, I was smiling; when Jesus said goodbye to one apostle after another, I had a lump in my throat; and when the show was over, I sat in my car and cried — in sadness over my own failings, in sadness for the world. But I also cried for joy — joy that people in my own community could create an evening as touching, funny and profound as Spokane Civic Theatre's Godspell (through April 11 in the Studio Theater).
But only Jesus freaks enjoy Godspell, right? No, because Stephen Schwartz’s show paints a vision of a better world — one that we can all share, the kind where we demand the highest moral standards of ourselves while having hair-trigger forgiveness for others (instead of the reverse).
The all-embracing range of Nickerson's production — from earthy to spiritual, from condemnation to acceptance — is echoed by the range of Robby French's portrayal of Jesus. French soothes and preaches, cajoles and reproves. He does a soft-shoe; he impersonates Groucho Marx. He hangs upon a cross of chains, keening as he’s dying; in the next moment, he’s confident and resurrected, with “Prepare Ye (the Way of the Lord)” joyously reprised to fulfill the show’s Christian message.
God's creation has range too — alpha and omega and all that — so it makes sense that we too might journey from silliness to sadness while watching the story of Christ’s life.
The image of the Savior doing vaudeville shtick may seem irreverent or silly to some, but those sequences reinforce Godspell’s insistence that God isn't some white-bearded abstraction. Instead, in the delapidated subway station of this world, she's the bag lady over in the corner.
Peter Hardie’s graffiti-splattered tile evokes that subway station; even better, his lighting scheme helped emphasize the action in a multi-level, sometimes fast-paced production.
Nickerson’s choreography (assisted by Jillian Wylie) gathers up ‘70s moves, but especially in a number like “O, Bless the Lord, My Soul,” he combines them in inventive ways: dip-stomp-swirl, step-clap-kick, fan hands and — big finish!
During the fast pace for the Jesus-Judas soft-shoe number, "All for the Best," diction suffered, as if Nickerson deliberately chose to slur over the gee-whiz lyrics. Still, French and David Gigler (as Judas in a business suit, full of misgivings) built to a rousing finish.
Becky Moonitz's five-piece band provided musical accents (including a rock-anthem guitar screech for Jesus' death) without overwhelming the singers, though volume was a concern in a couple of places (at the start of “Day by Day,” for example, and in the top-of-Act-Two reprise of “Learn Your Lessons Well").
But the fun soon resumes. As John the Skater-Kid Baptist, Mark Schurtz launched “Prepare Ye (the Way of the Lord)” with a thrilling a cappella solo; Nickerson’s direction amplified the intensity nicely. And this is the kind of production in which baptism involves squirt bottles, and the Last Supper, some baggies and a Thermos. So if religious practice too often seems to you like just a solemn duty, Godspell is the corrective: Loving Jesus can be a blast, man!
Happiness practically radiates off French, whose aw-shucks Jesus is capable of welcoming sinners with a hug, slapping them for their sins and then opening his arms wide to them yet again.
Both he and Nickerson handle the show’s tonal contrasts well. There can be jarring contrasts, after all, between the Sesame Street antics and Christ's rigorous theology: Cut off your hand, cast out your eyeball and ha-ha-ha. And somewhere around the parable of the sheep and goats or the story of the prodigal son, the comedy-sketch antics grew tiresome, as if Nickerson's cast were pushing too hard to deliver Theology Lite. But, in the parable of the sower, four groups of improvising cast members make the four-way metaphor visually graspable. With few lapses, the ten-person cast sang well, allowing joy to emerge from doubt.
“We can build a beautiful city,” Jesus sings, in a lyric imported here by Nickerson from the movie version, “—not a city of angels, but we can build a city of man.”
We can indeed build a better world, and Godspell makes the good news personal. Its emotional power — acknowledging loss and failure, but insistently pointing out the transcendent — hits you right in your spiritual guts.
That’s why lot of people who might otherwise not consider attending a show like this — from charismatics to disbelievers and all the Lutherans in between – ought to consider spending a couple of hours at the Civic. It’s better than any sermon you’ll hear on Sunday, and a lot more tuneful.
Godspell delivers its song-and-dance version of the Gospel According to Matthew through April 11 at the Civic's downstairs Studio Theater (just east of Spokane Arena) on Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays-Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets: $22; $11, student rush. Visit www.spokanecivictheatre.com or call 325-2507.