Story: Interspersing parables from the Gospel according to Matthew (along with a few from the Gospel according to Luke) with music inspired by Christian hymns, Godspell takes a look at the public life of Jesus Christ, from his baptism by his cousin and precursor, John the Baptist, to his crucifixion and death a few years later.
Highlights: Originally written as a master’s degree thesis at Carnegie Mellon University by its creator, John-Michael Tebelak, Godspell premiered in Pittsburgh in 1971 before moving to Off-Broadway for an extended run in 1972. Stephen Schwartz wrote the music to complement Tebelak’s book, and added some new lyrics for the 2011 Broadway revival.
That’s the version that began a national tour in October, including a weekend stop at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis. This new version explodes with energy on Schwartz’s musical numbers, accentuated by the choreography conceived by Adele MacKenzie. That's nearly enough to offset the traditional problems that ensue with the comedy numbers that can drag the non-musical portions of the show down.
Other Info: The touring show apparently is a Canadian version, judging from the bios of nearly all of its performers. It’s a tight and talented ensemble, to be sure, who breathe new life into this 20th century version of the gospel of St. Matthew. Indeed, David Hogan’s direction is spirited and infectious when the music is being performed.
However, as has been the case with previous presentations, the handling of parables in comic fashion can be labored and strained and, most annoying, overly long and meandering. Here Hogan falls into that familiar trap.
The music, though, remains vibrant and vital, as Schwartz successfully weaves together a score that taps into gospel, rock, folk and even traditional vaudeville on one of the show’s best numbers, It’s All for the Best. For that, Jake Stern (who resembles the long-haired version of Ashton Kutcher) as Jesus and Graham Parkhurst as Judas take walking sticks in hand to weave their way through the upbeat number with the ensemble's entertaining assistance.
Each of the players gets his or her moment in the spotlight. Most impressive is Janelle Murray, whose powerful voice ranges from operatic to chanteuse in style on numbers such as Learn Your Lessons Well. Rebecca McCauley shines on the early ballad, Day by Day, while Alessia Lupiano belts out the sultry song, Turn Back, O Man, in a duet with Stern and the company.
Others in the effervescent troupe include Lisa Michelle Cornelius, Michael De Rose, Michael Hogeveen, Stacey Kay and Ivan Lo. They move their limber bodies with grace and exuberance to MacKenzie’s choreography on the simple but effective set designed by David Rogers, which is lit by Jeff Johnston-Collins. Miranda Hoffman contributes a panoply of colorful costumes, including Jesus’ casual white suit sans tie.
Mark Payne’s musical direction is tight and uplifting as played by conductor/keyboardist John Yun, guitarists Alex Baerg and David “Dee” Klinger, Mark Laidman on bass and Daniel Baerg on drums and percussion. The band is visible on stage throughout, blending pleasantly with the ensemble.
Godspell was the opening show of the 2013-14 theater season at the Peabody Opera House. The engaging presentation gets Peabody’s season off to a rousing start, with a new production of Man of La Mancha up next, scheduled for February 7-9, 2014. Prepare ye the way of stirring musicals.
Company: Touring Company
Venue: Peabody Opera House
Dates: Run concluded
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.