Saturday, July 11, 2009


Updated GODSPELL appealing at Mercury Summer Stock

‘GODSPELL,’ now on stage at Mercury Summer Theatre, has a strong Cleveland connection. This is often overlooked in the stories about the rock musical which is based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, and supposedly tells the story of the last seven days of Christ's life..
Playwright John-Michael Tebelak was a 1966 graduate of Berea High School. At age 22, while a student at Carnegie Mellon University, he wrote the script as his masters thesis project.

As legend goes, Tebelak, who had thoughts of becoming an Episcopal minister before he decided to become a theatre director, had attended an Easter service in Pittsburgh and was struck by the lack of joy and celebration in the service, as well as by the personal hostility he felt from some of the older churchgoers because of his clothing and long hair. To put this in perspective, remember, this was the height of the Vietnam War, the hippie/peace movement, and the open clash between generations.

He dropped out of college, completed the musical, eventually hooking up with musical composer Stephan Schwartz (who would eventually go on to write ‘PIPPIN,’ ‘WICKED,’ and “CHILDREN OF EDEN’). The rest is theatre history. Working with Schwartz they retained the song "By My Side" from the original version, and wrote the rest of the score during preparations and rehearsals for the off-Broadway production.

The show opened Off-Broadway on May 17, 1971. Ironically, in August of that year, Tebelak directed a production of the script at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival, which was then housed in the Lakewood High School Auditorium.

John-Michael returned to Berea to direct the 10th Anniversary production of ‘GODSPELL’ at Berea Summer Theater in the summer of 1980. He subsequently directed ‘CABARET’ there in the summer 1981. He was named an Outstanding Ohioan by then-Governor John J. Gilligan.
The musical is noted for its score, which is a mixture of rock, folk, pop and Broadway and includes “Day by Day,” “Learn Your Lessons Well,” ”Light of the World,” and “By My Side.” Some of the lyrics are original, with others taken from either the BIBLE or the 1940 EPISCOPAL HYMNAL.

As conceived by Tebelak, in his attempt to add joyousness to the proceedings, the cast is traditionally dresses in clown-like costumes, or tie-dye materials which were popular during the “hippie” era. The Christ figure often has a Superman logo on his chest.

Since Director Pierre-Jacques Brault has added all sorts of references to today’s world, to modernize the parables, his cast is dressed in 2009 casual clothing. The likes of American Idol, Bernie Madoff, Kevin Bacon, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin get referenced. The setting is a school library, which allows for some creative, if overused, use of tables to create visual levels and walkways on the stage. Brault has some cast members seated within the audience and singing so that there is a feeling that the “congregation” is participating in the action.

Brault’s staging and choreography are sprightly and well-conceived.

The cast, mostly made up of young college students, creates many good vocal blends, though individual voices are not always good. Standouts include Sara Masterson who has a pretty voice and makes for an adorable disciple, and Jen Myor who also sings well. The musical renditions and staging of “All for the Best,” “We Beseech Thee,’ and “All Good Gifts” are excellent.

Since the main story is displayed in the subtext, the way the players interact with their leader and come together to create a loving community, the Christ figure must have a special charisma. Unfortunately, though he tries hard and has some appealing qualities, Zach DeNardi neither has the emotional presence or the voice to pull off the role. It was obvious that he, and Brian Marshall, who has both the fine singing talent and the required charisma, should have reversed roles.

Eddie Carney’s musical direction and his pit orchestra were excellent. Zach DeNardi’s set design, with library wall’s covered with philosophical phrases was engaging and appropriate.
The use of visuals to create a worldly meaning to the death of Christ at the end of the show were more distracting than appealing.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Though John MichaelTebelak died on April 2, 1985, at age 35, he will long be remembered for giving the world of theatre a major work that can be staged by and for groups of all ages. I think he would have approved of the updates and staging at Mercury. Yes, it’s all for the best!