SALT LAKE CITY — Don’t let the title, or any preconceived notions you have about this 1970’s musical, dissuade you. Godspell, written by John-Michael Tebelak with music by the celebrated Stephen Schwartz is playing on the Westminster College campus in the Jewett Center this shouldn’t be missed. With a script based on the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew and it’s a treat especially at Easter time. After all, Jesus is the reason for the season for a large majority of our state’s population, and even the most resolute atheist will find it’s exuberantly delivered message of inclusion and community uplifting.
Hardcore musical theatre fans should flock to this show because it’s rarely done in Utah. I’ve always been confused by that because this is about the man most Utahns put on a pretty high pedestal. Stephen Schwartz’ Jesus is the same one that is portrayed on the walls of Utah homes, only with a divinely inspired soundtrack.
The most important factor in determining whether to see Godspell depends not on religious affiliation, but how well an audience member can abide by the arrangements of the plot. With its nonlinear plot line, Godspell could more correctly be labeled a musical revue even though Schwartz was at the top of his game when 15 of his contagious melodies incorporated parables, verses and quotations from the Bible into the score. The music alone moved me, even after 40 years.
Speaking of music, the highlight of Westminster’s production was, delightedly, the music direction. Raina Thorne did an amazing job with a cast of mostly actors and some experienced singers. The musical dynamics were a special highlight in the show. It is evident that Thorne used a heavy hand to get that much musicality out of the young but passionate cast. I specifically appreciated its clarity through the complex harmonies in “Light of the World” and “On the Willows,” but the standout number for me was the simple but profound “All Good Gifts” with Edward Lopez as the soloist. Thorne kept the score unpretentious, and it was worth the ticket price.
Along with a great music director, Westminster had a cast willing to commit to the emotion of the music. It is plainly obvious that these 24 ardent actors are having a blast. They have created a tight-knit community that is clearly working together as a good ensemble does. My only complaint with the ensemble is that only about half of them had taken the opportunity to project a character with any kind of backstory or multi-faceted motivations. They all loved everything that Jesus told them, they all played along, they all sparkled at all the right times. In my world, some of us take longer to buy in to the whole “love each other” message. Some of us are skeptical while we learn. In a musical that is about discipleship, I would have like to see how they each projected their individuality. I wanted them all to strip away their insecurities and reveal the vulnerability it takes to create a fully realized character. I wanted that from the musicians and the choreography as well. I felt a certain austerity from the small band and from the choreographic choices; both lacked the utter abandon that Godspell, and the music of the 1970’s, requires.
Jesus’s role in this play is as a storyteller, and Trayven Call is perfectly cast as the loving, meek eldest brother of the group. His performance seems somewhat monotonous in his commitment to the emotion of the piece. Because Call chooses to play a humble and gentle Messiah it inspired me more to smiling and head nodding rather than steadfast, hallelujah-shouting discipleship. Godspell has been known to bring me to blubbering tears in the end, but when I wasn’t, I realized that the cast was too big for Jesus to really build relationships with each and every one of them. I missed the bond played with a smaller cast, of say…12…as Jesus must go forward and save us all from sin. The result made me wonder who all these people were and why I should care about them. However, to their credit, director Dave Dynak and Call do not project an exaggerated, frenetic Godspell which is a temptation by so many directors, because of the free reign directors have stage these parables in any way they want.
Above all other positives in this show was the hand behind it. Dynak was a perfect director for this musical because of Godspell’s didactic nature. Lucky indeed is the cast of Godspell to be able to work under the direction of a distinguished professor who has spent his life in the classroom. Dynak’s humility and unconditional love for all students absolutely radiated through the cast. “This is the only show I’ve ever directed twice,” he said before the show. His love for the material is palpable. He kept the tone grounded and unassuming despite its provocative post-apocalyptic setting. The stage pictures were stunning and combined with excellent lighting choices by Spencer Brown, there were copious “Kodak moments” for the audience. The only through-line I wished had more specificity was the choice to have piles of books everywhere. I understand conceptually that the New Testament was one of the books they found and are role playing out of it. I wanted to see the book used more as the source of their creations. It seemed to disappear once it came out.
The costume design was especially well done; it promoted, without distraction, the dystopian society that the community of disciples had created. It’s as if they had fashioned their own hip styles with what could be found post apocalypse; it’s an amalgamation of future couture and Deseret Industries chic. It truly facilitated the post-apocalyptic concept.
If there was an element that was a little incongruent it was the set, also designed by Spencer Brown. It felt unfinished. At first glance what appears to be the crumbling pilings of an old broken down church, almost Stonehenge in its effect. However, it isn’t much taller than the tallest cast member, making each pillar seems like a stoic cast member. In the beginning of the show the cast projects that they “don’t have a lot of time,” which leads me to believe that they don’t want to get caught in this abandoned place that houses their book collection. Perhaps if the pillars towered above them at various heights it would have added to the settings protective, secretive, worshipful nature. Its pristine paint job also inappropriately contrasted with the costume design which truly captured the setting. Would there be graffiti, or aging, or any trailing evidences of a fiery apocalypse? My biggest heartache however, was in the choice of a cross. Just in the final, beautiful and tender scenes of betrayal and crucifixion, there appear two pipes lashed together out of nowhere. There seemed a lack of foresight into this crucial moment that supersedes all others.
Regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof, audience members can leave this Godspell with a warm-fuzzy that will leave its imprint on their hearts for a long time. It reinforces that Jesus is a just and merciful hero for the secular humanists and religious zealots alike. It will also reinforce the power of musical theatre. I’m hoping that readers will find their way over to Westminster to partake in the exuberant celebration. You will not be sorry that you did.