Story: On a street in downtown St. Louis, an amiable group of residents congregate after hearing a beacon call from John the Baptist. He heralds the arrival of his cousin Jesus, whom John proclaims is the long-awaited messiah. Jesus mingles with the friendly folks, telling stories to them that outline how a life should be lived, with the resultant reward in heaven or the torment of hell for those who ignore their brethren. One of Jesus' newfound disciples, Judas, becomes disillusioned and makes arrangements to betray Jesus to those in command. Jesus then is arrested and quickly executed, but his spirit continues to guide the residents.
Highlights: Godspell has been a hit since it first was conceived as a college thesis at Carnegie Mellon University by its author, John-Michael Tebelak, in 1970. Based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew in the Bible's New Testament, it was moved to off-Broadway and fleshed out with music and lyrics provided by Stephen Schwartz, who adapted a number of traditional hymns to a musical score flavored with pop, soft rock, vaudevillian elements and other genres.
Other Info: Deanna Jent, artistic director of Mustard Seed Theatre, has set the story on a street in modern-day St. Louis, an avenue crisply defined by scenic designer Dunsi Dai that utilizes a tiny stairwell at stage left and a larger, two-story structure. The latter features a rooftop walkway for the players to perform atop Steve's Music Shop, which showcases music director Joe Schoen at the piano. Graffiti adorns the walls, including a plea for poetry painted as the show begins.
Jent's version of Godspell allows for an easygoing flow to the proceedings as her performers take turns embellishing the production's abundance of endearing and melodious tunes with their own vocal stamps. They also capably handle the non-musical elements in an ensemble effort that is meant to epitomize the meaning of the word ‘community' in a series of silly skits that underscore the serious message in Jesus' parables as related by Matthew.
J. Samuel Davis is steady and reassuring throughout as Jesus, both in the warmth and sincerity he exudes as the Messiah and also with his smooth baritone voice. Charlie Barron offers a fine counterpoint in the show's other major roles, doubling as both John the Baptist early on and later as the troubled Judas. Davis and Barron have particular fun with the vaudevillian piece, All for the Best, although the number's difficult patter lacks the benefit of the larger musical ensemble that usually accompanies it.
Isabella Liu enjoys the honor of singing the work's best-known tune, Day by Day, but everyone gets a chance to shine. Some, such as Deborah Sharn or Khnemu Menu-Ra, demonstrate powerful and persuasive sets of pipes, while others are softer and more delicate. As a unit, though, they mesh well and move the story smoothly forward.
Justin Ivan Brown is particularly humorous in a couple of light-hearted versions of the parables, such as admonishing a rich man wailing in hell or leading the goats who are banished to everlasting torment. Laura Ernst engagingly describes the tale of the Good Samaritan, while Anna Skidis, Amy Loui and Justin Leibrecht also handle their roles with aplomb.
Jane Sullivan dresses the troupe in comfortable, modern garb that places them in Anywhere, USA, while Meg Brinkley provides a plentiful array of props to bolster the various skits, all illuminated effectively by Michael Sullivan's lighting design. Kareem Deanes' sound design underscores the urban flair, Shaun Sheley provides fight choreography and the show's engaging dance numbers are a collaborative effort by Julie Venegoni, Ernst and the ensemble.
Godspell is fun, but it also shows its age a bit with the goofiness of the skits. The "gospel lite" approach often seems just too childish, but perhaps that was Tebelak's original point about the "children of God." Still, it can grow wearisome over two hours, making Schwartz's infectious music all the more significant.
Advent is a good time of year to be reminded of Matthew's pointed parables. The players in Mustard Seed's production of Godspell make that a most pleasant and informative experience.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Group: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fine Arts Building, Fontbonne University, Wydown at Big Bend
Dates: November 25, 26, 27, December 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11
Tickets: $20-$25; contact brownpapertickets.com or 719-8060
Photos courtesy of Deanna Jent