Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Caroline, or Change
Flash-forward to 2023, and creative lightning strikes again, this time at Stray Dog Theatre, with a highly credible New York subway set by designer Rob Lippert for for a new Godspell production at the Tower Grove Abbey in south St. Louis, along with sirens and explosions, and occasional news reports played on a portable radio on stage, all unfolding underground below the World Trade Center on the cataclysmic morning of 9/11/2001. It's an equally "imposed" theme on the original, but much more fully realized this time. The production is directed by Justin Been, who also serves as associate artistic director.
In this case, the very palpable stage surroundings of the New York City tragedy heighten the biblical drama, in a show that might otherwise be subtitled "Everything you ever needed to know about Sunday school (but were afraid to ask)." The 9/11 setting is used to the fullest extent possible, under a proscenium arch, turning bible study into a life-or-death proposition. (In the 1973 film adaptation, Godspell's song "It's All For The Best" is sung and danced atop one of the Twin Towers.)
Kevin Corpuz plays Jesus, making him complex and likable and wise. He arrives on stage shortly after the first Twin Towers impact, with a bleeding head wound. He is occasionally set opposite a male version of the original Sonia character, played with fine gay swagger by Stephen Henley. Jesus is perhaps lightheartedly wary, and very mildly reproving with this male version of the original Sonia during the burlesque-y number, "Turn Back, O Man." So it's an unexpectedly welcoming atmosphere for a playful gay character, and Mr. Henley finds at least a dozen ways to enliven him, under the extreme hardship of their shared historical moment. More important, of course, are Mr. Corpuz's splendidly dramatic final moments of anguish in what becomes an underground Gethsemane. As a theatre major, I'm still in awe of a big ornate smoke cloud near the end, which filters overhead in the last climactic moments. I wished I'd had that ghostly grey paisley in several of the shows I've been in, though it's nothing to joke about here.
The ensemble of 9/11 subway patrons also includes the highly professional Laura Lee Kyro, singing "Learn Your Lessons Well," and the heartwarming Sara Gene Dowling, who gets the big "Day By Day" solo. And even if silvery soprano Dawn Schmid (who sings "By My Side," written by Peggy Gordon, with lyrics by Jay Hamburger) weren't so flawless in all her vocalizing, she'd still get special mention, if only for her character's crazy-quilt slacks.
The big musical numbers are surprisingly fresh and vibrant: the harmonies are good, thanks to music director Leah Schultz, and the dancing is lots of fun thanks to the detail-oriented choreographer Sara Rae Womack. Within the regular pool of actors at Stray Dog Theatre, whenever I want to see the distilled meaning of a scene on stage, I look for actor Kevin O'Brien (excellent singing "We Beseech Thee"), and once again he captures each moment on stage with artistic perfection.
There is first rate work too from Rachel Bailey, Grace Langford, and Chris Moore. And Alexander Johnson (as John the Baptist, and as Judas Iscariot) adds pensive, subtle meaning, and a delicate sense of discovery, to a "towering" story.
Godspell runs through August 26, 2023, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. For tickets and more information please visit www.straydogtheatre.org.