BWW Reviews: Austin Theatre Project's GODSPELL Shows Off Energetic Cast
Every once in a while, I hear comments about theater that just make me cringe. One that I've heard on more than one occasion (usually from a pre-teen who doesn't know any better) is, "OMG! The score from Wicked has got to be the toughest thing that Schwartz guy ever wrote. How did Idina do "Defying Gravity" 8 shows a week?" Of course, the correct response is, "Idina's a professional, and Wicked is a synch when compared to Godspell, the first musical written by 'that Schwartz guy.'"
The fact that Austin Theatre Project attempts to and succeeds at tackling Stephen Schwartz's most challenging score is a testament to the talented performers ATP is able to attract. It's the 10 person ensemble that takes the fun but dated show and turns it into a must see event.
The 1971 musical envisions Jesus as the leader of a hippie-esque tribe (Think Hair, but family friendly and with Christ). While we are eventually shown the crucifixion and the events leading up to it (the weakest point of John Michael Tebelak's book), the majority of the show is plotless and centers on the dramatization of several biblical parables.
The show definitely has an early 1970s stamp on it, and while the recent Broadway revival tried and failed to mask that (no one wants to see "Glee goes to Jesus Camp"), ATP embraces the datedness of the piece. The costumes, by Veronica Prior, aren't completely 1970s, but they do feature quite a few 70s touches. The set, designed by Jim Schuler, is a whimsical, multi-leveled mishmash, decorated with painted peace signs and other graffiti. Director Barbara Schuler utilizes every inch of that set, and the aisles of the Dougherty Arts Center for that matter. Her production is wildly energetic and engaging with momentum that never lets up. Choreographer Sara Burke does a fantastic job at giving the cast dance lively dance routines that further heighten the energy of the show, and the band, under the leadership of Music Director David Blackburn, has a booming rock sound.
But as stated earlier, any production of Godspell will succeed or fail due to its cast and their ability to take on Stephen Schwartz's most challenging score. The ten person ensemble works incredibly well as a unit, but separately they shine even more. They each have a solo or two, and all knock them out of the park. As Jesus, Travis Martin is tasked with leading this odd little show, and he does so with an easy charm. His smooth voice is extremely pleasant to listen to as well. Brian Losoya, who plays John the Baptist and Judas, gives yet another strong performance. His powerful voice shows exactly why he's frequently cast by multiple theater companies in town. My only criticism is that as Judas he seems too detached from Jesus and the rest of the group too soon, but that's probably direction rather than an acting choice.
The rest of the cast, all of whom play themselves, is sensational. Lexie DeAnda does a fantastic job leading the rousing, gospel-tinged "O Bless the Lord," as does Adam Munoz with the equally spirited showstopper, "We Beseech Thee." Joseph Ruelle showcases his impressive tenor voice on the ballads "All Good Gifts" and "Beautiful City." Wendy Jo Cox, who has starred in supporting or cameo roles in other ATP shows, delivers an incredibly moving and haunting rendition of "By My Side" which shows why ATP keeps bringing her back and, more importantly, why she's worthy of being brought back in a larger role the next time around. But the crowd favorite is undoubtedly Chelsea Manasseri, who croons the bluesy "Turn Back, O Man." With her Edith Piaf-like voice and a stage presence that doesn't quit, I'm convinced that Manasseri can and will run away with any show if given the right song, a feather boa, and the ability to interact with the audience.
Sure, Godspell is dated and has its flaws, but when the right people are involved, it's wonderfully entertaining. This is without a doubt the best production to come from ATP since last year's B. Iden Payne Award winner Avenue Q. Prepare ye to have a good time.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission.
GODSPELL, produced by Austin Theatre Project, plays the Dougherty Arts Center (1110 Barton Springs Road, Austin 78704) now through August 31st. Performances are Thursday thru Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $18-$35. For tickets and information, please visit www.austintheatreproject.org