BWW Review: Trinity Street Players' Radiant GODSPELL
What do clownish costumes and biblical parables have in common? Subversive Broadway staple, GODSPELL of course! Austin's Trinity Street Players take on the classic Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak rock musical with an effervescent production fitting for Easter weekend.
Art either reflects or rejects the time and culture it's produced in. When GODSPELL was first conceived in the late 60s and produced on Broadway in the mid 70s, morals and culture in America were experiencing unprecedented upheaval. Mainstream evangelical Christian churches and their shrinking congregations didn't know how to react to Tebelak's musical tear down of the formal, mythological presentation of Jesus and the rigidity of the church as a whole. Tebelak wrote GODSPELL as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, disillusioned with recent church services. He was not unfamiliar with the church as he experienced a religious upbringing and briefly attended Episcopal seminary. Simply put, he knew which buttons he was pushing.
Based on the Gospel according to Matthew and Luke, GODSPELL "deals with the last days of Jesus, and includes dramatized versions of several well-known parables. And yet it is something more - a religious experience, a demonstration of joy, and a celebration of the family of man. The cast are conceived as clowns, improvising scenery and costumes, and using many well-known theatrical devices, pantomime vaudeville and varied musical styles to interpret one of humanity's greatest events." (Guide To Musical Theatre)
Unlike many shows, GODSPELL's structure can be modified according to how each director wants to portray the story. Trinity Street Players' Artistic Director Ann Catherine Zarate wisely includes the Prologue to start in this production, though choose to eliminate it. Director Rusty Andrews of Shoestring Theatre Company in California describes it best: "In the prologue we are presented with a number of religious-philosophical positions that have, and continue to, affected human attitudes and thought for centuries. It's included in the show to depict...the chaos that can ensue when we (as represented by the Philosophers) make life too complicated. This serves not only as the canvas on which Jesus appears, but provides a wonderful contrast with his simple, straightforward views about life." (GODSPELL Notes from Directors)
After the audience is presented with this prologue, John the Baptist (Gus Greene) prepares them for Jesus' (Joshua Denning) entrance and life. For those unfamiliar, GODSPELL Act 1 follows a simple, non-linear pattern of rousing song followed by a short parable followed by another rousing song. Each parable, comically acted out by the Disciples, allows Jesus to communicate his teachings to them, giving them the foundation needed to go forth as a community once he's left. Act 2 dissolves into a more linear yet darker tone as it depicts Jesus' last hours and crucifixion. Schwartz's songs move from catchy rock tunes to emotional ballads in Act 2, reflecting the events they're relaying.
The Trinity Street Players inject their production of GODSPELL with jubilant radiance and each wonderfully gifted actor gets a chance to shine, whether in a parable or song. Maybe that's what makes GODSPELL so fun: the lack of conscious-or unconscious-competition. A sort of equilibrium sets in as the entire cast is onstage for the entirety of the show and almost everyone receives a solo. I didn't know what I was in for, and was promptly bowled over by everyone, particularly actors Gus Greene and D'Mariel Jones. These two stand out during numbers "Prepare Ye" and "We Beseech Thee" with the control, power, and tonal excellence contained in their young voices. Come for the talent and stay for the party, because this casts' mega-watt energy during numbers such as "Day by Day", "Bless the Lord," and "All For the Best" will make you want to get up and dance.
Ms. Zarate and Staging Director Manuel Zarate make GODSPELL their own through many paired down yet impactful choices. Instead of head to toe, possibly distracting clown costumes, the beautifully diverse cast is clad in black and given colorful accessories. A choir seated off to the right of the stage, having just as much fun as the principal cast, gives each song a grand and glorious quality that fills up the massive sanctuary where the production is set.
The production stumbles only slightly on the lack of individual personalities among the Disciples. At times they felt like a big ball of manic energy with all the same personalities, despite unique accessories to individualize them. Mr. Denning, pitch perfect in every other scene as a patient and loving Jesus, comes off as lifeless during a supposedly angry diatribe against the Pharisees in "Alas for You". But these stumbles are small in comparison to the leaps and bounds achieved in this production.
Trinity Street Players normally operate out of a small black box theater in the upper floors of the First Baptist Church of Austin, but use the sanctuary for staging GODSPELL. Mr. Zarate's spirited staging makes use of the space he's given as the actors run, dance, climb and move among the aisles, pews, alter, and pulpit with glee. Each playful jump and climb lovingly dismantles the rigidity of the sanctuary they occupy, securing GODSPELL's message of community, inclusivity, and warmth.
Trinity Street Players' productions are free, so there's no reason not to head to the First Baptist Church of Austin today or tomorrow and experience with heartfelt and joyous production of GODSPELL.
Photo Credit: Rod Machen
April 18 - April 21, 2019
Trinity Street Players
Black Box Theatre, 4th floor, First Baptist Church
901 Trinity Street
Austin, TX, 78701
Free admission; takes place in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church, 701 Trinity Street, Austin.