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Review: AD Players Offers A New Twist On GODSPELL

Andrew Carson and Joey Watkins
in AD Players' GODSPELL

One of the things that make GODSPELL great is its fluid setting. A director can take almost any concept and spin the musical on top of it. In AD Players' latest GODSPELL incarnation, director Justin Doran chooses to set the show in a jail, of all places. It's new, it's edgy, and it's a commentary that springs off of many ideologies: we are all sinners in need of retribution, without God life can seem like an incarceration, and (in our media-driven culture) if you believe in God you'd better be quiet about it or you've committed an unpardonable sin - offending non-believers.

GODSPELL has enjoyed a healthy longevity, having grown out of its 1970's hippy-dippy roots to modern productions that continue to celebrate the teachings of Christ, particularly the parables in the book of Matthew. With music by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin) and dialogue by John-Michael Tebelak, Godspell was a hit on Broadway in 1976 and has been played in countless companies since. A 2011 Broadway revival gave it a good boost of notoriety and GODSPELL continues to uplift audiences today. The AD Players' production is no exception; the show is goose-bumps-on-your-arms invigorating and filled with excellent performances in a provocative setting.

Musically, GODSPELL is a generous smorgasbord of song styles, with upbeat toe-tappers interspersed with soul, funk, and pop ballads. The cast is strong and magnetic in their rendering of the song line up. The new a cappella prologue number is inspiring and vocally impressive, though I wondered if viewers unfamiliar with the music would find it confusing. Other high points in the show include Brooke Wilson singing "Bless The Lord", an updated and fun "Day By Day" sung by Teresa Zimmerman, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy in "Learn Your Lessons Well", the line-dance inspired "We Beseech Thee", sung by Mason Butler, and the funk piece, "Light of the World", sung by the fierce Jeremy Gee. Mark Ivy does a great job with "All Good Gifts", the anthem of gratitude that pulls the heartstrings. During the segment when Jesus is teaching about light, the cast sings a gorgeous musical version of the "Body/Light" chant, the first time I've seen it done as a song. The finale, "Long Live God/Beautiful City" reprise is stunning and soaring. The cast sounds amazing together throughout the production, and this piece puts a perfect stamp on the end of the show.

Chelsea Ryan McCurdy
in AD Players' GODSPELL

As Jesus, Andrew Carson is radiant, humble, and likable. Carson shines in "All For The Best" and while he struggles vocally at times throughout the show, his portrayal has integrity and stability. The multitalented Joey Watkins does a good job as John The Baptist/Judas, though I enjoyed him more as the former character. Judas needs to be hateful, spoiled and vengeful and Watkins' portrayal was a little too amiable. Watkins is at his best when singing "Prepare Ye" and the melancholy "On The Willows".

This production, like many GODSPELL iterations, has its share of comedy and a sense of free-flowing improv. Getting volunteers from the audience to participate in charades, Pictionary, and play-acting is a great idea and was warmly received the night I saw the show. The "converts" planted in the audience didn't work as well - for one thing, they're supposed to be in jail. Who would sign up for that? For another, it was distracting when the convert would come up on stage and change into the "converted" uniform while more important things were happening onstage. "The Parable of the King" rap was fresh, new, and totally fun. Brooke Wilson is hilarious as the traveler lying by the roadside waiting for a good Samaritan. The Samaritan of choice is pretty hilarious, too, and a nod to a certain popular movie franchise. Many of the cast members have great mimicking skills and this adds a ton of fun to the show.

Choreographer Krissy Richmond does a great job providing fun and upbeat choreography that spans different styles. Ryan McGettigan's set is appropriately cold and grim, but allows for flexibility and multi-level settings, serving the cast well. The baptismal "font" is creative and clever. With Mark A. Lewis' lighting, the stage is transformable and interesting in every scene. The sound was generally good the night I attended, but there were times when the band was louder than the soloist, or the ensemble was louder than the soloist.

Generally this is a very strong production worthy of time and money. Several of the performances are very moving and I left feeling spiritually filled as well as highly entertained. An added bonus: the new AD Players theater on Westheimer is beautiful, spacious and very audience-friendly with plenty of legroom and very comfortable seating.

For tickets:

GODSPELL will be performed July 21 - August 13

Jeanette & L.M. George Theater, 5420 Westheimer, Houston, 77056

Photo Credit: Pin Lim

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