Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
That is my interpretation of this jaunty, small show with an enormous heart. Full disclosure, I am not now nor ever have been a Christian, being born and raised in Judaism. Yet, I appreciate the moral messaging of the pronouncements and testimonies that make up the bulk of Godspell's text, devised by John-Michael Tebelak from the Gospel of Matthew, and the joy contained in Stephen Schwartz's songs (with many of the lyrics taken from the Bible and the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal), as well as the playfulness of this production directed by Vanessa Brooke Agnes. Playfulness is actually an understatement: if this production were any more buoyant, it likely would push through the ceiling of the Schneider Theater in Bloomington where Artistry has mounted a three-week run of Godspell.
Godspell opens with "Tower of Babel," with cast members in modern dress representing a variety of great philosophers, such giants of intellectual thought as Galileo, Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, and Jean Paul Sartre. Their voices rise into an atonal cacophony that intensifies until the arrival of John the Baptist, who calls the throng to gather and for baptism to the strain of "Prepare Ye." The philosophers transform into a motley group of disciples. They become clownlike in appearance, though also a manifestation of a unique spirit dwelling within them. Jesus, who has been observing, makes his presence known and launches into a series of lessons, by way of parables.
The parables are presented as light entertainments, such as pantomimes, comedy sketches, and even a game of charades. They include the Unforgiving Servant, Lazarus and the rich man, the Good Samaritan, the Widow and the Judge, the Sower of the Seeds, and the Prodigal Son. Interspersed songs reflect on the lessons, including "Save the People," "Day by Day," "Learn Your Lessons Well," "Bless the Lord," "All Good Gifts," and "Light of the World."
The second act takes a more somber tone, as Grace, one of the disciples, cautions the crowd to follow the virtuous path lain out by Jesus ("Turn Back, O Man"). Serious business follows, as Jesus confronts the Pharisees for hypocrisy, and stops a mob ready to stone an adulteress to death, decreeing "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." A resumption of exuberance erupts into "We Beseech Thee" before we arrive at Jesus' last days. He meditates in the garden, pleading for mankind to create a heaven on Earth, a "Beautiful City" (a touching song added for the 1973 movie and usually included in stage productions since). The last supper and the pre-ordained betrayal of Jesus by Judas bring the story to a wrenching climax, yet it ends in the hope of a resurrection–not a depicted resurrection of Jesus, but a resurrection of joy and faith that has bonded the disciples into a community.
Director Vanessa Brooke Agnes keeps her ensemble of nine actors constantly interacting, playfully and supportively, so that we actually witness them transforming from the intellectual sparring of the philosophers into a faith community of disciples. Allison Vincent, who has a long career in devised theater, is given the unusual credit of clowning/devising consultant, and the pay-off can be seen in the playful repartee among the actors and the feeling of spontaneity throughout. Kyle Weiler did the phenomenal choreography. Weiler creates great stage images with ensemble dancing but is also attuned to the strengths of each cast member, giving each the opportunity to dazzle in individual turns.
The show's physical production serves it well, especially the playful costumes designed by Jacourtney Mountain-Bluhm, including a robe for Jesus that manages to suggest both humility and majesty. Kyia Britts' lighting design also contributes greatly to the production, conveying the shift in mood from jubilant to serene to fraught–though always back to jubilant. Music director Bradley Beahen leads a six-piece band that gives a spirited performance.
Only two actors in Godspell play named characters. In a charismatic performance, John Jamison II plays Jesus with a vibrant voice that conveys warmth and wisdom, lithe movement that reveals inner drive, and a radiant presence that establishes his centrality. His performance of "Beautiful City" is heart-stopping. Jordan Leggett plays the dual role of John the Baptist and Judas, though he has less to do as the former, who is only in the first couple of scenes. Leggett is a born entertainer, singing and dancing with style and grace. As Judas, Leggett persuasively draws out the unbearable agony he feels after his act of betrayal. Together, Jamison and Leggett make a great vaudevillian act in the soft-shoe driven "All for the Best."
The remaining seven cast members each play a character with the same name as the actor, thus Ben Dutcher is the disciple Ben, Caleb Michael is the disciple Caleb, and so on. They are all terrific, and to give credit to all, the others are Elena Glass, Grace Hillmyer, Javari Horne, Nora Sonneborn, and Wariboko Semenitari. Special moments include Grace Hillmyer's delivery of "Turn Back, O Man," Ben Dutcher's singing and dancing in the rousing "We Beseech Thee," Dutcher paired with Nora Sonneborn in "All Good Gifts," Wariboko Semenitari's incredible vocal range and searing delivery of "By My Side," and every time Caleb Michael moves–what a fantastic dancer!–along with his lead vocal in "Light of the World."
This production of Godspell, postponed from last fall when Artistry went on pause to address significant financial and administrative problems, is conceived as a celebration. One senses the celebration is as much for this company's return to the boards as for the gospel revealed throughout the show. But Godspell has always been meant to provide uplift. In 1970, John-Michael Tebelak was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. He attended an Easter Vigil service at St. Paul Cathedral wearing a t-shirt and overalls, typical attire among students in that era. On his way out of the service a police officer who noticed his scrappy appearance frisked him for drugs. Tebelak was deeply distressed by the judgement that act represented, on the heels of the gospel he had just received. He went home and completed his manuscript for Godspell in just two driven weeks, and it became his master's thesis. By 1971 Godspell had found its way to the legendary La Mama Experimental Theater Club in New York. A year later, with Stephen Schwartz coming on board to compose a new score, a commercial run opened off-Broadway and ran for over five years. The joy has been spiraling around Godspell ever since.
Artistry has a right to celebrate this production, its second since rebooting their season, after a terrific Pajama Game this past spring. Godspell leaves the audience fully entertained, rolling out wonderful song after song. As to its deeper message, not being a Christian, I cannot gage the impact it has on devout believers, but I can say that its message that charity, humility, steadfastness, tolerance, community, and other virtues will make a better life for all of us absolutely moved me and offers inspiration to implant those in the world. I cannot imagine a more heartfelt, exuberant production of Godspell, nor a cast more invested in giving 100 percent of their considerable talents.
Godspell runs through August 13, 2023, at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $52; Seniors (Age 62 and up): $47; Youth (age 12 and under): $20; Next Generation (age 13 - 30): $25. For tickets and information, please call 952-563-8375 or visit artistrymn.org.
Conceived and Originally Directed: John-Michael Tebelak; Music and New Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz; Director: Vanessa Brooke Agnes; Choreographer: Kyle Weiler; Musical Direction: Bradley Behan; Scenic Design: Katie Edwards; Costume Design: Jacourtney Mountain-Bluhm; Lighting Design: Kyia Britts; Sound Design: Born Into Royalty; Production Manager and Props Design: Katie Phillips; Clowning/Devising Consultant: Allison Vincent; Technical Director: Will Rafferty; Associate Director and Choreographer: Brittany Marie Wilson; Stage Manager: Ashley Raper (through 7/23/23), Laura Topham (7/24/23 8/13/23); Assistant Stage Manager: Kelley Yount
Cast: Ben Dutcher (Ben), Elena Glass (Elena), Grace Hillmyer (Grace), Javari Horne (Javari), Annika Isbell (swing), John Jamison II (Jesus), Jordan Leggett (John/Judas), Caleb Michael (Caleb), Wariboko Semenitari (Wari), Ben Siglin (swing), Nora Sonneborn (Nora).