Sunday, June 13, 2004

Godspell (Porthouse Theatre-KSU)

'GODSPELL' is "All for the Best" at Porthouse

‘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. 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 BST 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. Should the production center on the religious message, forsaking the humor or take Tebelak to heart and make this a production of joy with the philosophy of Christ being carried though warmth and humor? Terri Kent, the Porthouse Theatre’s director, decided to go with the latter interpretation. It was a wise choice!

Given a great deal of leeway with a script that doesn’t prescribe visual or staging images, Kent left behind the show’s traditional notion of Jesus dressed in a Superman t-shirt and his followers clothed as clowns. She updated the language and nonverbal gestures, incorporating rap and contemporary musical sounds.

All in all this is a good production. It builds to an emotional conclusion without adding more preachiness than the script already has. 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 strong. Especially effective were Ryan Bergeron whose “All Good Gifts” was emotionally involving; Sandra Emerick whose big voice and seductive looks were well used in the delightful, “Turn Back, O Man;” and Andrew Crus whose “We Beseech Thee” was highlighted by some clever choreography and a let-loose attitude. W. James Koeth did a fine job of making Jesus a real character rather than a caricature. Coleen Longshaw built “Day by Day” to an emotional peak.

Though often delightful, Matt Lillo, as he has done in other productions, failed to pull back when necessary and sometimes upstaged other performers. Cute Emily Pote was often difficult to understand. Joshua Gordon failed to ignite the character of John the Baptist.

MaryAnn Black, who for some reason was given no bio space in the program, created some very clever and well executed choreography. Highlight numbers included “O, Bless the Lord, My Soul,” “All for the Best,” and “We Beseech Thee.”

Brian Laakso’s musical direction was excellent, playing backup rather than drowning out the singers. Steve Pauna’s constantly moving scaffold set worked well though it may have been overused at times.

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. Terri Kent has crafted a well-conceived and audience-involving production.

(Thanks to John Nolan, theatre buff extraordinare and a member of the 1980 BST “GODSPELL” cast for background material used in this review.)