BWW Reviews: A Different Interpretation of GODSPELL Plays at Totem Pole Playhouse
"Prepare ye the way of the Lord" has rung out upon stage for four decades now, ever since John-Michael Terelak asked fellow Carnegie Mellon grad Stephen Schwartz to write the music and lyrics for his retelling of the Gospel of Matthew, GODSPELL. First a hit Off-Broadway in 1971 (surprisingly, it was never actually on Broadway until 2011), it's been popular almost everywhere for nearly 45 years now. And one of the things that keeps the show fresh is that, within reason, directors are encouraged to keep it fresh by adding local references, ad libbing humor, and otherwise reinventing it each time, within the limits of the show's framework
It's also been set everywhere. Playgrounds, parking lots, beaches, schools, anyplace - usually outdoors - that a cluster of young people willing to hear a new message might gather. At Totem Pole Playhouse, artistic director Rowan Joseph has chosen to set it... in a theatre. Oddly, it's set in the very theatre in which the audience is seated. The show has three different possible openings; rather than beginning with John the Baptist's "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord" sung walking to the front, Joseph opens with the "Tower of Babel" spoken number, often cut, in which the disciples-to-be recite verses from the show, over and over, entering one at a time and continuing as the next cast member comes in, creating, intentionally, a cacophony of sound.
The problem here is that Joseph has gone a bit "meta" - he's gone out of the framework of young people creating sound and has engineered a wall of sound set downstage... at a GODSPELL audition. The stage is bare, the ghost light goes off as the lights go on, audition signs are placed, and a group of actors begin auditioning for GODSPELL with the opening verses of the first piece, "Tower of Babel." Immediately and mystically, they then perform the entire show on the stage at that time (forget hiring and signing of contracts; they go from audition line to show). The net effect is that there is no escape for the mind - one is always reminded that one is watching actors engaged in the business of acting. It's a bit like watching A CHORUS LINE without getting wrapped up in the characters' stories; you're always aware you're watching actors on a stage.
Costuming is the same matter. In some productions, the cast shows up on stage already in the street clothing they will wear, while in others, they transform into young hippie-types (look, it's a 1970-era show) on stage. Here the newly hired actors costume themselves on stage, pulling garments from a costume rack on the stage that is serving as a - well, the stage is bare, making it a set of a stage, one supposes. And as the costumes are current Brooklynite hipster - jeans with dress vests, tutus, and the like - it becomes a bit hard to tell if the mood is humorous or, as hipsters usually intend, ironic. While there's certainly irony in the very story, this production is just a bit self-consciously ironic.
The actors, however, are more than capable, and have, for the most part, incredible voices. Nathan Meyer, the show's John the Baptist (look for his red ringmaster's tailcoat, a suitably ironic choice for the master of ceremonies of the circus that is GODSPELL in action) has previously played Joseph in Marc Robin's splendid production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT at the Fulton in Lancaster, and is no less delightful here. Tiffany Mann, who has more fun with the audience in her performance of "Repent, O Man" than anyone should be allowed to have, but it's quite wonderful, gives the impression that she's a budding Nell Carter in action.
Totem Pole veterans Kara Boyer (A CLOSER WALK WITH PATSY CLINE) and Em Grosland (BARNUM) are also delightful, especially Grosland, who is an absolute joy to watch in motion. She may be small, but she and her voice are huge in action, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Cheeyang Ng gives a marvelous performance during "All Good Gifts". And then there's Jesus. Compared to Grosland, Michael Jayne Walker is subdued as Jesus, but it's hard to compete with Grosman's energy. Everyone seems slightly subdued in comparison, except for Meyer and Mann. But Walker's got chops, and it's also appropriate that Jesus not be quite as rowdy as his disciples. Gotta watch your image in that job.
Speaking of Jesus... as a matter of decorum, though GODSPELL is a raucous and rollicking show, there's also to this author a question as to whether Jesus really should do the Funky Chicken and sing "chik-a-boom" during "We Beseech Thee", especially when the scaffold being used as a set piece for the dancing makes the choreography of the scene look uncomfortably like the orgy episode in Diane Paulus' PIPPIN.
And there's where the real issue with this production settles in. Director Rowan Joseph has the right instincts but carries them a bit far. This production is bubbling over with good humor, but there's little restraint to it, and "over the top" is everywhere. Diane Paulus proved that it's hard to go overboard in some ways with her current Tony-winning Broadway revival of PIPPIN, but her handling of the extremes was somewhat more refined, while this is more burlesque. Admittedly some of the humor is well-deserved; in the parable of the servant who tortured another over a debt, the idea of torture by enforced Barry Manilow blasting is (at least to some of us) hysterically funny. But when every possible song reference to another show is referenced - a comment about money to "Money" in CABARET, and about today and tomorrow to... well, "Tomorrow" from ANNIE -- complete with the ensemble breaking into full routines and Jesus shouting "wrong show!", the show starts feeling less about its stated message and more like a new edition of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY.
WS Gilbert wrote, in IOLANTHE, "professional licence, if carried too far, your chance of advancement may certainly mar", and this author fancies that the same applies to artistic license. As stated, Joseph has good instincts here, as with Paulus, taking shows with deep messages and dark places, and elevating them to over-the-top entertainment while keeping meaning, but there's a time for a slight degree of restraint that this production lacks - perhaps aiming for Woody Allen rather than Mel Brooks as the humor icon might have helped. Considering the subject matter and main character, that mild restraint would have prevented the contemplation of whether it is borderline sacrilege to stage Jesus doing the Funky Chicken, or whether his chik-a-boom bass line is too redolent of a 1970's porn soundtrack. That same restraint also would have prevented the faint air of "A CHORUS LINE meets FORBIDDEN BROADWAY" that wafts around the edges.
The great thing about this production - and indeed there is one - is that repeat productions of GODSPELL, which is performed so frequently, can become tiresome, and despite the issues addressed, at no point is this production tiresome even to one who has seen the show frequently. It is energetic. It is rapidly-paced as well as tightly paced. Despite its over-the-top elements, it holds together far better than many other productions of the show. Like a Mel Brooks comedy, there is an underlying tightness to Joseph's direction that does balance the "too much!" factor. A less CHORUS LINE opening to "Tower of Babel" might have been the key to the rest of it working better. The other excellent thing in this production is the aforementioned great cast.
If you've never seen GODSPELL, this may not be the ideal introductory production of it. But if you have, it may well be worth it for you just to get a very different take on the show. To this writer, there might be a concern with some of the tweaks giving a sensitive Christian audience member discomfort with this particular Jesus; one hopes that the particular moment in question will be toned down. (Disclaimer: this author is not Christian, and she was, clearly, not quite comfortable with it.) If you love the music and songs from this show, this production will be well worth it for you under any and all circumstances, and it will be a must-see.
At Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville through August 31. Call 717-352-2164 or visit www.totempoleplayhouse.org for tickets and information.