OREM — When I went to Godspell at Utah Valley University, there were some things I was anticipating. A musical with good songs? Yeah. Some solid vocal talent? Sure. Jesus, baptizing a ton of rednecks in a “Paw Patrol” kiddie pool? Nope. But was it brilliant? Did it have me peeing from laughter? Would I see it again a million times? Yes, yes, and oh yes!
This production of Godspell is uniquely set in a trailer park. Before the show, audiences are serenaded by Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift, sitting in an intimate black box space littered with beer cans and lawn chairs. A single trailer door graced with red solo cup fairy lights sits center stage (that’s right – red solo cup fairy lights) beneath an updated American flag – star bangled and sensual, this flag cheekily features a lovely lady mascot. This sound and set design by Gavin Henry and Ian Webb may seem jarring, but understanding student director Marta Myers’s vision for the show’s message may shed some light.
Godspell, with music by Stephen Schwartz and story by John-Michael Tebelak, is a rock musical about various parables told by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. In this production, only the actors playing Jesus, John, and Judas are named; the rest of the cast playing characters called by their own name. The musical follows Jesus sharing these stories in silly, engaging ways that keep audiences giggling at the playful nature. When Myers sets this story among the inhabitants of a rusty and rowdy trailer park, however, those giggles turn to side-splitting laughter. Myers’s vision is also beautiful, for those who will hear it, If Jesus came to Earth today, these are the types of people he would be with: the drunks, the sinners, and those humble enough to listen.
This production of Godspell is a party. The entire cast is not only ridiculously talented, but their electric energy makes this production impossible not to enjoy. Combined with fluid choreography by Emma Crow, the show is non-stop. Any potentially boring or repetitive songs pulsate with interesting movement. Vibrant lighting design by Adam Gowers is thrilling, particularly in “All For the Best” and “All Good Gifts.” The design emotes rock concert vibes from the audience with rich colors and perfect timing (shoutout to stage manager Chris Vlamakis for executing those mesmerizing moments.)
Standouts in the cast include Nathan Bowser as Jesus and Ian Webb as John/Judas. Bowser has an endearing and genuine earnestness to his acting, reading him instantly likable. Webb is consistent throughout, showing a satisfying character arch as Judas in his subtle facial expressions and repressed physical anger. Isabel Eardley’s performance as “Izzy” had my stomach hurting from laughter with the actor’s incredible vocal comedy, then had my heart filled with genuine emotion as they heart wrenchingly sang “By My Side.” Eardley’s facial expressions are bright with sincere feeling and emotion.
Everyone in the cast left me awestruck, particularly vocally. Music director Andrea Church has done brilliant work with this cast, especially with such belt-heavy, vocally challenging material. Johnathan Francis as “Johnny” and Sasha Wilkinson as “Sasha” stand out with their golden voices. Francis’s voice is smooth, freely resonating with strong gospel vibes (pun intended), while Wilkinson’s voice is just completely and utterly lovely and very pleasing to listen to.
My only gripe with the production was the lack of believability in the second act. Many of the actors did not appear believable in their reactions to grief. I would have loved to see these incredibly distinct and interesting characters that I grew to love in the first act react to grief in their own unique way. When every character was in the exact same physical position at Jesus’s death, each one sobbing loudly on their faces, these characters no longer became believable to me. It felt forced. This critique is easily forgivable due to every other phenomenal aspect of the production. But, if fixed, I believe this amazing cast and crew have the talent and ability to make the ending of this production beautifully heart wrenching. The first act, and the majority of the show, however, was truly without flaw.
I came to this show after a week of food poisoning and living on the couch. I want to personally thank the cast and crew of UVU’s Godspell for causing me to laugh harder than I have in a long time, which I really needed. Perhaps some would find this production’s execution of religious material as crass or offensive, and there are some cautious people who would want to avoid the production. For those who are willing to give Godspell a try, however, this production is so fulfilling and enjoyable that it could not disappoint.