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BWW Review: GODSPELL at Berkshire Theatre Group Marks A Rebirth of Theatre In America That's All For The Best

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This is the first Equity-approved show to open since the health crisis began.

BWW Review: GODSPELL at Berkshire Theatre Group Marks A Rebirth of Theatre In America That's All For The Best

GODSPELL is structured as a series of parables, stories told by Jesus to convey his message. Composed by Stephen Schwartz with book by John-Michael Tebiak, GODSPELL began as a student project at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970 and opened Off-Broadway May 17, 1971. In the last fifty years there has been a film version, several cast recordings, dozens of tours and revivals, and hundreds, if not thousands of productions in community and school theatre programs across the world.

Given that history, one might lean towards thinking it's all been done before, or how could they possibly do this differently? Factor in a worldwide pandemic making basic human interaction risky business and vocal performance a high-risk activity. Add a social justice movement advocating for non-violent civil disobedience in protest against incidents of police brutality and all racially motivated violence. Suddenly we find ourselves with a host of questions and very few answers. When the arts, like so many other facets of life as we had come to know them, came to a screeching halt some 4+ months ago it moved a far more fundamental and pragmatic question to the forefront: how? How do we continue a craft that has evolved from ancient Greece to a world resplendent with pyrotechnics and hydraulic lifts? How do we tell the stories, the ones that delight, disarm, entertain, inform, and teach? Particularly when you're the first, as this production of GODSPELL is the first musical approved by Actors' Equity Association to move forward and into production during the Covid-19 pandemic.

BWW Review: GODSPELL at Berkshire Theatre Group Marks A Rebirth of Theatre In America That's All For The Best
Najah Hetsberger
Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

In this case you begin with a solid production that has a long history of success at the core. Then you begin to embrace and incorporate change. Some of which the management team at Berkshire Theatre Group, led by Board of Trustees Co-President, Lee Perlman and Artistic Director and CEO, Kate Maguire worked with Actors' Equity Association to devise in a safety manual detailing the steps required to ensure the safety of all involved. With the plan for logistics and operations in place you enlist director, Alan Filderman and Choreographer, Gerry McIntyre to guide a talented cast of twelve who came together about three weeks ago to essentially re-open and re-start theatre in the United States. According to Filderman, you throw out any thoughts and vision you might have had and go back to basics. You also avoid pretense and acknowledge what is happening. You incorporate real world elements like masks, sanitizers, gloves, etc. You do your best to convey intimacy and connection undeterred by social distancing guidelines that include NO TOUCHING.

BWW Review: GODSPELL at Berkshire Theatre Group Marks A Rebirth of Theatre In America That's All For The Best
Zach Williams and Alex Getlin
Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

The production opens with each cast member sharing their personal story of where they were when the pandemic hit. It gave the relatively small, well-spaced, and facemask wearing audience a chance to relax and acclimate to something new, different, and anything but normal. It works fairly well and helps to put patrons, despite the folding chairs under a tent, in a comfortable place from which to sit back and enjoy.

The action returns to something more traditional with the first musical number "Prepare Ye" performed by the entire cast with most behind moveable plastic screens which at first gave each a distinct individual space and also provides a protective barrier capable of catching any potential droplets. The incorporation of the required tools continues throughout the production as appropriate to allow for the story telling, which is done with both narratives and song, though far more so by the latter. By the completion of "Save the People" the technique is established and relatively comfortable. Isabel Jordan takes lead vocals on "Day by Day" with notable power and clarity. Jordan is joined by Dan Rosales singing in Spanish that is both surprising and delightful.

BWW Review: GODSPELL at Berkshire Theatre Group Marks A Rebirth of Theatre In America That's All For The Best
Kimberly Immanuel
Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

Contemporary and relevant threads are woven throughout. We encounter re-tweeting angels, sourdough bread making, Hell which we learn is a Walmart, and a Karen who wants to speak to the manager. Musical numbers are, not surprisingly, the highlight and the vocal talent of the entire cast is ample. Each having their own individual moment to shine and share those vocal skills during the course of the evening. The audience was particularly responsive to "Bless The Lord" with lead vocals from Emily Koch. "All For The Best" performed by Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Tim Jones (Judas) with yard sticks to maintain distancing and soft shoe reminiscent of Pippin (a later piece from Stephen Schwartz) was especially memorable. It allowed a delightful opportunity to showcase the well-balanced talents of the two lead performers. I would be remiss without also calling out Kimberly Immanuel's tap work. Najah Hetsberger's performance of "All Good Gifts" is lovely and offers the opportunity for a bit of soulful belting. Michael Wartella leads the company in "Light of the World" with a great deal of energy the likes of a revival meeting befitting the tent venue. Like so many elements of this production, pieces are not always presented in ways one might expect based on previous productions. Such is the case with Zach Williams performance of "Turn Back, O Man" which lands solidly with all the energy and sensuality of that which is more traditionally delivered by female players in this number. By the time the last supper is presented and the cast sings "On The Willows" we find ourselves emotional as Jesus bids his followers farewell, a clear indication that the evening and the production as whole is indeed all for the best.

BWW Review: GODSPELL at Berkshire Theatre Group Marks A Rebirth of Theatre In America That's All For The Best
Nicholas Edwards
Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

One of the highlights of this production is "Beautiful City" which was not in the original. It was added to the score for the 1972 film. It was updated in 1993 following the Rodney King riots and included in the 2011 Broadway revival. The piece itself is hauntingly beautiful and Nicholas Edwards' performance is both poignant and powerful. It drives home what may be the prevailing point to take away. Despite the challenges thrust upon us; although we may not be able to gather in ways we've grown accustomed to, we can still be collaborative, supportive, and nurturing.

There are many good reasons you might choose to see GODSPELL which continues through September 4th under the tent at Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. Whatever the motivation, you will experience a new, fresh, relevant, powerful, topical, and most certainly different production. You will also be making history as part of what many see as the rebirth of theatre in America. Visit www.berkshiretheatregroup.org for additional information and tickets.



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From This Author Marc Savitt