BWW Review: GODSPELL at ACT Of Connecticut
On Saturday, February 8, I had the pleasure of seeing a phenomenal brand new interpretation of GODSPELL at the ACT of Connecticut, in Ridgefield, CT. With the permission of GODSPELL's composer and new lyric writer Stephen Schwartz, artistic director Daniel C. Levine has newly imagined this musical, presenting the parables with some major poetic license of the farcical modern context brand. The energy and comedy levels are magnified to the nth degree, with every cast member, including the teens and children, all bringing their A game, and electrifying the stage with non-stop adrenaline, reminiscent of the Energizer Bunny. Every cast member radiates positive energy from the stage, all showing that they are clearly enjoying their roles, with tight stage chemistry as if they have been acting together for years. This amazing cast under the brilliant team of director Daniel C. Levine, musical director Danny White, and choreographer Sara Brians perform this rock musical that was originally conceived by John Michael Tebelak in a manner far superior to how I have ever seen it before! No matter how many times you may have seen GODSPELL before, it is definitely worth your time to see the ACT of Connecticut's vastly different interpretation which I like to refer to as "Godspell on Caffeine."
Trent Saunders leads the cast as Jesus. Jaime Cepero performs both John the Baptist and Judas. The rest of this superstar talent ensemble cast includes Jacob Hoffman, Katie Ladner, Alex Lugo, Andrew Poston, Monica Ramirez, Phil Sloves, Morgan Billings Smith, Emma Tattenbaum-Fine, and Shaylen Harger, with the teen and children performers including Nikki Adorante, Marley Bender, Nate Cohen, Sully Dunn, Adelaide Kellen, Colby Kipnes, Jack Rand, Amelie Simard, Caroline Smith, and Dean Trevisani. All the adult cast members have amazing singing voices that each get individually showcased at some point during the show. Their dancing as a group is harmonious and synchronized, and their acting, including accents, is convincing. They also have mastered the often challenging stage skill of deliberately talking over one another simultaneously, to create the reality of numerous conversations going on at once. Some incredible acrobatics is displayed, including with a jump rope on "We Beseech Thee." The teen and children's chorus harmonizes incredibly well, shows contagious enthusiasm, does some great pig and sheep acting, and shows coordinated dancing when they come down from the choir loft, during "Light of the World." Also in the choir loft we can find the talented band comprising conductor and keyboardist Danny White, guitarist Miles Aubrey, and bassist Arnold Gottlieb, while drummer Dennis Arcano is eventually revealed to be in the very back of the stage, often getting percussion assistance from the cast members banging on various props on stage.
The first act is a dramatization of many of the parables and teachings of Jesus, portrayed in a sometimes serious and other times comical, yet generally reverent manner. The second act involves the Pharisee attempts to trip up Jesus in His words, the Last Supper, the agony at the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Crucifixion. The content of what is presented through word and song is generally true to the Scriptures, sometimes verbatim, and with the central message generally remaining the same when comical poetic license is added, with a few exceptions, most notably the "turn the other cheek," segment in which Jesus and His lesson are both misrepresented by portraying Jesus as striking someone. The artistic choice is made to place the Temptation in the Desert at the same time as the Agony in the Garden, perhaps to depict the spiritual warfare Jesus confronted and defeated in both situations. The Resurrection does not appear in this version of the show.
The show starts, not with the song "Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord," but instead with whispering outside an abandoned Manhattan church that has been left unkempt and has become a hangout for the homeless, including children. The homeless soon enter the church and treat it as their temporary home. Suddenly, the homeless hide as a dysfunctional team of developers come inside, arguing over specifics as to how they are going to refurbish the building and turn it into a lucrative condominium complex. As the developers are about to leave, a homeless child is discovered inside. Soon, the other homeless people begin to abruptly emerge from their hiding places. It is then when "Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord" is sung, but not strictly by John the Baptist. In this case, it is the voice of many crying out in the wilderness. While the song is being performed, the cast begins moving things on the set to clean the church. By the end of the song, what looked like a dirty, dumpy abandoned building that should arguably be condemned, has instead been transformed into what looks like the fresh new inside of a beautiful church, including the choir loft which is first revealed at that point. Scenic designer Reid Thompson combines his efforts with lighting designer Jack Mehler to create a breathtaking transformation of the set, right in front of the eyes of the audience! This radical transformation of the set can be perceived as symbolic of what Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, does to our own hearts, minds, and souls, when we embrace His presence, view Him as Lord, and surrender to His sanctifying grace and love. He makes all things new!
The new comedy in the show ranges from slapstick to dialogue. It includes sound effects, deliberate dialogue interruptions, and even a case of the spotlight deliberately not being where it is supposed to be. An example of the type of farcical addition is that when the Luke 18 story about the prayers of the self-exalting Pharisee and the repentant tax collector are being discussed, the differences between the Pharisee and tax collector are being settled in the context of a boxing match on stage. I feel like these unique and comical additions to the show may, by God's grace, reach some audience members with the messages of Jesus in ways that some audience members may find easier to relate to than other methodology that they had previously been exposed to. I pray that many audience members become spiritually enriched with the help of these unique approaches to sharing Jesus' messages. For anyone wondering about appropriateness, the new dialogue and situations are primarily reverent, with the exception of some uses of the Lord's name in vain, and the aforementioned "turn the other cheek" segment. There is otherwise no profanity. Even the political humor is done in such a way that it should not offend anyone's political sensibilities, on either side of the aisle.
Intermingled with the comedy are some moments that remain serious. While I greatly enjoy most of the new comedy, my favorite parts of the show tend to be the serious moments, like during the song "On the Willows," when Jesus individually shows His goodbyes to each apostle, or during the other slow yet powerful numbers, like "By My Side," or the spectacularly arranged and performed "All Good Gifts."
I highly recommend GODSPELL, with the one caution to those who are seizure prone that there are strobe light effects. It is scheduled to continue to run at the ACT of CT, in Ridgefield, CT, through March 8, 2020. For times and tickets, please go to https://www.actofct.org/.