by John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz
Theatre St. Thomas
The Black Box, February 21-24, 2007
Given the long, incredibly successful run of John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz's musical and dramatic riff on the Gospel of St. Matthew, it's difficult to come to a new production of Godspell without pretty elaborate expectations. One component of many people's expectations, I think, is probably that it will be a Big Show: tied as it is to our memories, or fantasies, of the seventies, and the tradition -- which it played an important part in beginning -- of the rock musical, we think that it will be loud and large. What was most notable, perhaps, about the St. Thomas production which filled the Black Box last week was that it is not an exaggeration to say that it was intimate. Yes, there was a cast of twenty, a band, and substantial company of support people -- but, wondrous to say, the singers were not miked, and didn't need to be. This was in large part because of the quality of the music provided by the band, which was a four-piece, powerfully disciplined and tightly focused support to the singers (as we might expect from its director, Mike Doherty). Thus the chorus and the singers managed, almost universally (17 different people had solos of various lengths), to be powerful, confident and focused without having an amplification system strapped to their bodies. (Power was generated, as I think it ought to be, by variations in intensity and volume rather than by sheer volume -- by running the controls up to eleven, as Nigel Tufnel wanted for Spinal Tap's amps.)
In an important way, Godspell is more a musical performance than a drama (I was reminded regularly of the way Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, adopted chunks of the Bible into his monumental entertainment, Messiah). If you add some dance and some "story theatre" -- and a pretty small proportion of spoken dialogue -- to the recitative, aria and chorus structure of the oratorio, you come up with pretty well all the elements of Tebelak and Schwartz's creation. Theatre St. Thomas added some striking set painting (including a wonderful "milky way" streaming across the floor and up the back wall), a couple of projection screens (setting a regular and often witty counterpoint against the action), some precise and elaborate lighting, and a few units of scaffolding, and everything else depended on those basic elements.
As should be expected in a production directed by Ilkay Silk, the sense of ensemble was strong, focused, and unbroken: augmented, in this case, by the imaginative choreography of Katie MacDonald, it showed us where to look at every moment, bringing us together in our attention. A good example was the moment when everybody on stage is focused, physically, on the figure of Jesus -- except for the character who was John the Baptist and will become Judas, placed not quite facing Jesus, and with his arms folded. This is not about "acting"; it's about making sure the audience sees what they're supposed to see in order to become involved in the action -- and the acting.
This is not to say that acting was not involved. The script's two major figures were both extremely strong. Jeff Dingle was a wonderfully clownlike and vulnerable Jesus (imagine him played by Charlie Chaplin), with a sophisticated sense of exactly when to move, how long to pause, and where to place his voice to cut through the enthusiasm or despair of the crowds. Lee Kinney gave us a striking, almost hypnotic John the Baptist and Judas; the transformation of the one into the other is one of the most interesting ideas in the script, suggesting as it does the reciprocal relationship between passionate following and passionate denying, and Kinney, with his powerful, sure singing voice and his compelling stage presence, kept us from missing a bit of that resonance. The power of his "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," coming from the back of the audience and cutting through the confusion of the "Tower of Babble" at the opening of the show gave us confidence that this was going to be a production we didn't have to worry about. (It functioned rather the way the tenor's hypnotic "Comfort Ye, My People" does at the opening of Messiah.)
Acting was involved, too, in the dancing and movement among the company: I can't remember seeing so many dancers so completely focused on their character, and on making the character's reactions, attention, and emotions the center of the movements demanded by the choreography. Particularly striking here were Sarah Jeffries and Step Taylor, but in general everyone kept that remarkable focus, and thus so did we. The "story-theatre" style enactments of the various parables were carried off with astonishing aplomb, as characters from the company jumped up and took positions to take roles as the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, Lazarus and the rich man, etc. What was particularly effective was the disposition of the company onstage during these mini-dramatizations: like the characters at the center, the onlookers maintaining, in their positioning and their postures, a complete focus on the story and the characters. But the musical backing, the precise and clever lighting changes, the witty overhead projections, all worked together to bring the stories to the kind of life that only the theatre affords.
One of the most surprising things about Godspell is its endurance: somehow its view of Christianity as the sort of joyful communitarian and morally simplistic set of ideas appropriate to the ebullient mood of the late sixties has survived into the age of The Passion of the Christ and into the pervasive paranoia of an era in which the dominant stance is one of cowering in the face of a multitude of random threats -- terrorism, pandemic, global meltdown, rising crime rates, and general moral disintegration: ain't it awful. A culture of fear has replaced a culture of flowers. The Rapture may be upon us, but we, unlike the folks who went to the original productions of Godspell, don't find it something we can imagine welcoming.
And indeed, in spite of everything, I remain unconvinced by the show: the superficiality of its reading of St. Matthew, and the odd ineffectuality of the attempted solemnity of the ending leave me wondering what Tebelak and Schwartz thought the Crucifixion achieved, exactly. This uncertainty or confusion leads to the bathos of the chorus singing, "Oh, God, you're dying"; of Christ singing, "Oh, God, I'm dead"; and perhaps most of all the "Long live God" chorus, associating this cataclysmic event with a sort of "for he's a jolly good fellow" tone. In order to carry this off for us, the company needs to have generated an almost unachievable amount of momentum, to have brought the audience off the highways and byways and made them come in to the world of these passionate clowns, this broadly comic sacrifice. Theatre St. Thomas' production came as close as I can imagine anyone doing to bringing us through that ending with our engagement intact.