Friday, November 16, 2007

A review of Godspell

Catalyst - It's tough to do a play at Old Brick, the space Catalyst Acting Company has chosen to put on its production of Godspell. Cavernous is a generous term for describing the space. The size of the hall forces tough choices when setting up the house, when lighting the play space, and when blocking the show.

Godspell is the sort of show that should be a success at Old Brick. The set, lighting, and staging requirements are minimal, thus eliminating many of the problems most plays put on at Old Brick face. Catalyst's set consisted of eight doors, symmetrically arranged around the stage. At the back of the stage was another door lying flat on two sawhorses. On the wall behind the stage were three curtains, two white curtains flanking what appeared to be a metallic shower curtain.

When it originally opened, Godspell was a radical departure from the normal way the lessons of the Gospels were presented. The message of Godspell was that it was fun to become a follower of Christ, that becoming a follower of Christ was a celebratory event. The main focus of Godspell is teaching these lessons in a new way, not about telling a good story. (This being the main difference between Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar - Superstar ultimately could care less about the teachings of Christ and is entirely focused on telling a good story.) These days, elements of that Godspell approach are a part of most mainstream religious services. It is a testament to the quality of the show that what was once a radical departure from the norm is now, in many ways, the norm.

As the play opens, members of the company appear one after another, each singing as a representative of a different theological strain. At least, they were doing that if you could hear them. Several of the singers were not able to project above the three-piece orchestra. This problem continued throughout the entire show, not just the opening number. There were also pitch problems at several spots in the opening, and these too continued throughout the entire show.

Let me digress for a moment here. It's tough to do a musical. There are few things more difficult to do onstage than act and sing at the same time. You don't have to worry about pitch when performing in a non-musical; you don't have to worry about keeping time with musical accompaniment. If you forget your lines in a non-musical you can often cover without the audience knowing. If you drop a line while singing a song, everyone knows. Further, you might not even be aware of some of these problems until performing before an audience for the first time. In general, for a musical to be a success, it must depend on the singers in the cast.

There are some very good singers in this cast, and the highlights of the show all revolve around them. Rachel Brown's performance of Day By Day was stunning, as was Jeffrey Mead's lead on We Beseech Thee. Those two, along with Carol Johnk (who did a very good job with one of the show's poorest songs, By My Side), were great on Light Of The World. Jessica Fannuchi's O, Bless The Lord was also quite good. The other players had a mix of moments, with good voices that tended to get lost against the accompaniment.

Still, the ultimate success or failure of Godspell is less about the members of the company and more about the actor playing Jesus. As written, the Jesus of Godspell is part carnival barker, part circus ringmaster, part vaudeville entertainer, and all showman. As written, people are drawn to the Jesus of Godspell because of his personality and charisma as much as being drawn to his teachings. John Marshall brings none of those qualities to his performance as Jesus. There was no joy, no happiness, no sense of celebration to his performance, and the show as a whole suffers from those elements. It didn't help that large portions of both his speaking and singing parts were lost to the space. Marshall's Jesus was all teacher, which is fine in general, but not how the role is written. This made the production as a whole less about a celebration of Christ and his lessons and his message and more about teaching.

The choreography was by a number of different artists with Arts a la Carte, and the result has an unevenness that should have been anticipated. Some of it was quite good, some of it was quite wooden, and certain portions were (unintentionally) funny. I understand that part of the impetus behind the project was the collaboration with Arts a la Carte, but perhaps it would have been better for the sake of the production to have one lead choreographer through whom the other choreographers filtered ideas.

The three-piece orchestra was quite good. I don't think that the problems with hearing some of the vocalists were due to the musicians being too loud as much as they were due to the singers not projecting enough. The lighting was quite good throughout, and the set and staging first rate.

Despite what you might think from the review, I have no hesitation about recommending the show to anyone. Every thing I mention is easily correctable, and it isn't difficult to see most of the problems stemming from opening night jitters. Good casts and good directors learn as a show goes on, and this cast is a good cast and this director, Jeff Shields, is a good director. Godspell runs through Sunday, and ticket information can be found here.

--David Pierce

David Pierce is a four-time past president of the Iowa City Community Theatre. He has acted, sung, directed, and worked backstage for far too many local productions to mention. He is a writer both by trade and inclination, with law and journalism as an educational background.

(Pictured are Rachel Brown, Jessica Fannuchi, Roxanne Gustaveson, Michael Sotelo, Frederica Kenyon, John Marshall, Carol Johnk, Meghan Henry, and Jim Brewer.)

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