BWW Reviews: 'Alas For You,' GODSPELL at Blank Canvas
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
GODSPELL is one of the biggest musical theatrical successes of all-time. Based on the "Gospel According to St. Matthew," the musical tells the story of the last seven days of Christ's life. The parables have been contemporized, and Christ's followers are free spirits who sing the likes of "Day By Day", "All Good Gifts", and "Turn Back, O Man.
The show is perceived to be the creative child of Broadway super-author and composer Stephen Schwartz, the conceiver of such hits as PIPPIN and WICKED. 'Taint so. Schwartz was a late-comer to the project.
The story goes that in 1970, while attending college in Pittsburgh, John-Michael Tebelak went to church on Easter Sunday. A theology student before he decided he wanted to be a theatrical director, he found the service to be devoid of feeling. Afterward the long-haired Tebelak was stopped by a policeman and searched for drugs. (Remember, this was the era of student protests, hippies, draft card burning, and those "dangerous" peaceniks.) Tebelak confided that this experience provided him the inspiration for GODSPELL. He produced the show as his senior project at Carnegie Mellon University.
The original score consisted of a song written by a cast member and old Episcopal Hymns, played by a rock band. To this point, Schwartz had nothing to do with the project.
John Michael left school without graduating. The show was eventually staged at the off-Broadway Cafe La Mama Theatre. A producer saw the production and said he would finance it if it had a new score. Enter Stephen Schwartz, who wrote all the songs in 5 weeks. (The only tune to remain from the original production is "By My Side"). The newly conceived show opened Off-Broadway on May 17, 1971. Tebelak was 22 years of age! GODSPELL moved onto Broadway where it ran for 2,124 performances. Hundreds of professional and amateur productions of the show continue to be done.
Besides the Schwartz connection to the project, another fact that is generally overlooked is Tebelak's Cleveland connection. He is a Berea product. As related by Bill Allman, the former producing director of Berea Summer Theatre, "John-Michael cut his theatrical teeth at Berea Summer Theatre where he acted, designed scenery and directed. In 1980 he returned to his roots when he directed a revival production of GODSPELL."
The show's other connection to the area is that in August of 1971, before it became a mega-hit, GODSPELL was produced at Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, the predecessor to Great Lakes Theatre Festival, which, at the time was housed in Lakewood High School's auditorium. The show's director was non-other than Tebelak, himself.
The show is not without controversy. It has been called blasphemous. Religious leaders have stated, "Surely no Christian who believes the Bible would approve of the perversion of GODSPELL." The Wexford Pennsylvania School Board banned a production of it after "complaints about its religious message."
Any director of GODSPELL has a number of choices to make. First, there is no script for the show. Everything is part of the score and there are no stage directions for staging the show. It has been done as a series of segments in which comic characters are the center of attention. It was staged as children in a Sunday school class. It has been done as a religious sermon in a church setting. Pat Ciamacco, Blank Canvas's director, has opted for a dream sequence.
Another issue is the tone of the piece. Should the production center on the religious message, forsaking the humor or take Tebelak to heart and make this a production of joy. Ciamacco tends to lead toward the serious side, overlooking many of the comic elements, though not forsaking all of them.
Usually Jesus is garbed in a Superman t-shirt and his followers clothed to fit the humor theme. True to his more traditional theme in this production, Jesus is garbed all in white, his followers in various clothing, randomly picked off the costume rack. He has updated some of the language and nonverbal gestures.
All in all, this is an acceptable production that avoids the peachiness that can come from the song and story development. It conveys the message to "be careful not to make a show of your religion before man." It also invokes thought as to why some followers of Christ preach hatred against others instead of following the dictum, "Ye shall love thy neighbor as thyself."
The cast is mixed in their vocal and acting abilities. Especially effective was Eric Thomas Fancher whose "Light of the World" was dynamic and the strongest vocal solo. Kate Leigh Michalski, she of mobile face, did a nice vocal in "Learn Your Lessons." Shane Patrick O'Neill did a good interpretation of the meaning in We Beseech Thee." The vocal blends were often quite good.
Noah Hrbek has the handsome good looks of many of the paintings of Jesus. He has a pleasant voice, but failed to develop the charisma that would be necessary to reap fanatic followers. His "Save the People," had a nice musical sound.
Isreal Spain failed to ignite the pivotal character of John the Baptist and often lacked clarity of idea development.
Lawrence Wallace's musical direction was excellent, playing backup rather than drowning out the singers.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: It's been done time and again, but with a good production 'GODSPELL' can still be a fine theatrical experience, even if you aren't into the religious message. Blank Canvas's production isn't a sure winner, but it will hold your attention and expose the audience to the quality of Tebalk's creativity and Stephen Schwartz's music.
(Thanks to John Nolan, theatre buff extraordinaire and a member of the 1980 Berea Summer Theatre "GODSPELL" cast for background material used in this review.)
The show runs through December 21, 2013 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland. Get directions to the theatre on the website. (My GPS was of little help). Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space. It's an adventurous battle. For tickets and directions go to http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com