BWW Reviews: Stage Door's GODSPELL Provides Explosion of Talent and Renews Faith in Musical Theatre
In Stage Door Players' production of the now-classic musical GODSPELL, gone are the hippie clowns and folky numbers that have been synonymous with the show for the past four decades. In their place is a high-octane, frenetically-paced explosion of talent. While there is still a sense of the original clown motif, that has been tweaked along with the book, score, and arrangements. Stage Door's production is a regional premiere of the 2012 Broadway Revival script that modernized the songs' arrangements, added a tune from the film version ("Beautiful City"), and made other nips and tucks. If you are a long-time GODSPELL devotee, as I am, there will be little touches that you miss; chief among them Jesus' now-absent Superman T-shirt; but Stage Door's infectiously talented cast nearly makes up for a handful of issues in the original material and some rather glaring directorial missteps.
GODSPELL began as a Masters Thesis project for playwright James Tebelak in 1971, and after seeing the show, which examined parables from the Gospel of Matthew through clowning, composer Stephen Schwartz came on board to musicalize the play. Schwartz provided new music to traditional hymns as well as wrote additional songs. Through the decades the show has seen many stars don the familiar wigs and facepaint, especially in the famous 1972 original Toronto production, which featured Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, and Martin Short. The show's song "Day by Day," performed wonderfully here by the always entertaining Caitlin Smith, even became a pop hit, reaching No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100.
I grew up "rocking out" to the GODSPELL cast recording and movie soundtrack. So, the music of this show will never not give me goosebumps, but numerous times, the Stage Door cast gave me goosebumps, chills, and perhaps brought a tear to my eye. Without question, the show's strength (as is often the case) is found in the musical numbers, specifically those led by the cast's five women. Randi Garza's spectacular rendition of "Learn Your Lessons Well" was especially entertaining. Additionally, Garza, Smith and one of Atlanta theatre's most talented leading ladies, Laura Floyd, added some of the night's most enjoyable moments with their seemingly thrown-away "ad-libs." Floyd was also an answer to my prayers in the sultry "Turn Back, O Man."
Jeremiah Parker Hobbs is a more than adequate Jesus. He brings a certain relatability and a knowing smile that always seems to be hiding a growing pain within. Dan Ford (who bears a striking resemblance to Broadway's Lin Manuel-Miranda), performs the dual roles of John the Baptist and Judas as an effective ring master in the show's early numbers. The pair work well together, especially on the high-energy "All for the Best."
As previously stated, the women, as a whole, are more effective than their male counterparts, but that is largely due to their excellence, not a slight on the men's performances.
While their characterizations seemed to blend in with those of the rest of the company, Courtney Godwin and Tierra Porter displayed remarkable vocal talent on their songs. Godwin more than lived up to the legacy of "Bless the Lord;" which isn't easy to do, considering the epic renditions of Shoshana Bean (listen here) and Lindsay Mendez (listen here). Likewise, Porter was sensational on the reprise of "Learn Your Lessons Well" and "By My Side." Daniel Burns joined in on the ad-libbing hilarity and was very strong on "All Good Gifts." Robert Mitchel Owenby closed out Act I with a raucous version of "Light of the World," and Daniel Pino was equally fun on "We Beseech Thee."
The unmistakably fantastic cast is more than enough reason to check out this production of GODSPELL. While there are undoubtedly flaws in the execution, this grouping of extraordinary talent should not be missed.
In many ways GOSPELL has become somewhat of a Shakespearean play. For both, the text is so well known and revered that directors show their creative take in establishing an interesting and unique setting for their production. Stage Door's director Brian Clowdes, the Executive and Artistic Director at Serenbe Playhouse, has imagined GODSPELL in a run-down, old-school carnival, designed by Chuck Welcome. The band, led by Music Director Nick Silvestri, is housed in a dilapidated carousel that fits with the rest of the decrepit midway booths. There is also a seemingly demonic set of eyes surveying the scene in artwork above the Fun House entrance.
The sinister setting continues into the often overlooked opening-number, "Tower of Babble." In my experience, you can usually tell how strong a GODSPELL production concept is simply by watching this number. Unfortunately, this one felt forced to me. The song was musically awkward and slow, and didn't fit the overall purpose the song plays in the context of the show.
"Babble" should serve to show each character as an individual with strongly-held beliefs that are often in opposition to those around them. However, when John and Jesus arrive, they begin to form a community of love, acceptance, and faith. Instead, in Stage Door's approach, the characters have a vibe boarding on Pennywise from IT, with one actor walking on stage with his head cocked at an odd angle reminiscent of a walker on WALKING DEAD.
This wouldn't have been as much of a distraction for me had the transition to the community-building aspect of the show not been so sudden and seemingly without motivation. Unfortunately, that is how much of the show felt; transitions rushed and individual characterizations abandoned in an effort to get to the next phenomenal show-stopping song. Throughout the show it seemed that a number of choices were made simply to serve the chosen setting, rather than the material or message as a whole.
Not to belabor the point, or my nostalgia for the Superman shirt, but I was disappointed by the fact that Jesus was dressed in contemporary clothing while all of the disciples were wearing outrageous carnival-inspired costumes. As I've said, the authors' expressed message of the show is about building a community from otherwise disparate individuals, and to have said community's leader be so differentiated clearly loses much of the power for me.
There were a few line and choreography issues on the sold-out opening night, and, whether it was because of the high intensity choreography (by Bubba Carr), or the breakneck speed with which the company delivers the dialogue and songs, a number of actors were out of breath at inopportune moments in the show. I imagine that was due in no small part to opening night nerves.
My last issue with the show is that while I missed the on-stage wine party during intermission, I thought it was a nice touch to have the cast members mingle with the audience during the latter half of intermission. However, several of the conversations I was within earshot of disappointed me.
In a show as fun and flexible as GODSPELL, it is completely appropriate for the actors to have meta conversations with audience members, however, much of what I heard, was actors completely breaking character and commenting on the play as themselves, rather than as their individual characters. In my mind, the whole point of the audience interaction is to bring the crowd into the show's growing community, not to remove the actor from it.
These faults aside, Stage Door Player's production of GODSPELL was one of the most enjoyable nights of theatre you are likely to have. I left the theatre with a renewed faith in the power of musical theatre and a smile and song in my heart. GODSPELL runs through June 8th in Dunwoody. For tickets visit StageDoorPlayers.net or call (770) 396-1726.
Photo Credit: Stage Door Players & Brian Clowdus