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BWW Review: GODSPELL at Des Moines Playhouse: An Energetic Reimagining of a Classic Show!

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A Classic Story Reimagined for Today's Audiences

BWW Review: GODSPELL at Des Moines Playhouse: An Energetic Reimagining of a Classic Show!
The Cast of "Godspell"
Photo by Steve Gibbons

Des Moines Playhouse has found itself adapting to the current climate throughout the pandemic and is continuing to produce live theatre. Last summer, they offered a drive-in theatre. Throughout the year, they have provided live indoor productions to smaller houses and streams of their shows. This summer, they are adapting once again by taking a step back in time. Taking a cue from the traveling tent shows the during the first part of the 20th century, the Playhouse is presenting a summer tent series. The tent series opened up on July 9 with a production of John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz Godspell.

If you haven't seen the movie or a production of "Godspell" in the past, the show starts with a group of people arguing over different philosophical views. As the group continues to debate, a horn is heard, with John/Judas coming in advising everyone to let them know of the coming of Jesus. When Jesus enters, he starts sharing different parables with this group, with the group acting out the stories in multiple different ways. One by one, this group begins to accept his teachings, and various members start breaking out into songs that get the others in the group to sing and dance with them.

Part of the fun of "Godspell" is figuring out how you want to tell the story. It is a production where people have ideas of what the show should look like, so you want to honor that, but you also want to have your unique version. Under the direction of Artistic Director Katy Merriman, this production manages to do both. She brings part of the classic things about "Godspell" with the set and costume design and brings a modern version with the cast and choreography.

The set designed by Alex Snodgrass has a classic rustic look to it. Several crates, boards, and planks on the stage can move around to tell each of the parables in the show. The back of the stage is draped with pastel and muted streamers used for the show's choreography. The costumes tell a very colorful story. At the top of the show, it seemed that the costumes were going to have a modern, drab-colored look to them, but when the cast left the stage during "Prepare Ye," the costumes they came back with were bright and colorful. The costumes had several callbacks to the period the show initially came out without feeling dated.

Like most revived shows, "Godspell" has gone through updates to the script and the music for its 2012 Broadway bow. One of my favorite updates is the harmonies in the music. The cast does a beautiful job with the intricate harmonies under the music direction of Brenton Brown. The music draws you in and has the audience wanting to sing. The fun part is that the choreography by Megan Helmers does the same thing. The choreography was so fun and energetic that it made me, as an audience member, want to get up and dance right along with the cast.

"Godspell" is truly an ensemble show. It brilliantly gives each cast member a chance to shine in the spotlight while also giving them time to blend in with the rest of the cast. This talented ensemble featured Patrick Carew, Alexis Castro, Mar Feitelson, Shelby Kephart, Abigail Phelps, Kaylee Reininga, Sophie Rounds, Marisa Spahn, Cari Walton. Each of the members put their own spin on these classic songs and stories.

The heart of this show lies in the friendship onstage between Nathaniel Han as Judas/John the Baptist and Peter Noll as Jesus. Whether they were working together onstage in the show-stopping "All For The Best" or putting their hearts on full display in "Beautiful City" and "On The Willows," the connection they have pulls us in to hear what it is each of them is saying. This leads to the audience feeling the struggle Han's Judas is facing leading up to his betrayal of Noll's Jesus.

If you've been looking for a production to start attending theatre again, then "Godspell" is the perfect production for you. From the fantastic direction, design, and cast, this production is not to be missed. To find out more about this production, or other shows featured as part of the summer tent series at Des Moines Playhouse, visit Home - Des Moines Playhouse (dmplayhouse.com)

Review was written by DC Felton
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