Group: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through July 19
Tickets: From free seats to$66; contact 314-534-1111 or www.metrotix.com
Story: “Youth Day 2009” at the St. Matthew’s Church playground is the setting for Jesus to introduce the New Testament Gospel according to evangelist Matthew to a group of young people. From the baptism of Jesus by his cousin, John the Baptist, through a series of parables that Jesus equates to divine lessons, to his betrayal by his disciple Judas and death by crucifixion, Godspell (an archaic spelling of gospel) tells in music and verse the story of Jesus’ last three years of his human life, the time of his public teaching.
Godspell was conceived in 1970 by John-Michael Tebelak as his master’s degree thesis at Carnegie Mellon University. His original show included Episcopal hymns played by a rock band, but after some performances in New York City he was teamed with Stephen Schwartz, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, who wrote original music for the breezy, two-act show that eventually became the fourth-longest running off-Broadway musical.
Highlights: In its fourth appearance at The Muny (1989, 1995, 2003), director Jen Bender retains the simple charm of the piece, if also its silly detriments. Here, the young adults in the cast are portrayed as people attending “Youth Day” who look like they’re about 20 or so but act like they’re about 10 years old. Of course, we’re all children in the eyes of God, but the goofiness and saccharine approach are as weary as ever.
The true strength of the show is in the delightful, upbeat, appealing musical score. From the 13th century hymn, Day by Day, to the jaunty vaudeville piece, All for the Best, and the haunting ballad, By My Side, Godspell is filled with infectious tunes that move the heart and lift the spirit. Thanks to the lively musical direction of Michael Horsley and the singing abilities of her cast, Bender’s rendition admirably showcases the work’s strong score.
Other Info: Muny mainstay Eric Kunze offers a low-key Jesus, effective in his warmth and camaraderie although not as convincing when delivering stern admonitions. Kunze leads the troupe on the rousing Save the People and does nice counterpoint work with Demond Green as Judas on the show’s most clever number, the vaudeville-inspired All for the Best.
Green does nice work in his dual roles as John the Baptist and Judas, although I have never understood, and probably never will, Tebelak’s reasoning in having one actor perform both of those pivotal roles, particularly given their opposite points in the New Testament.
The cadre of performers who bounce around and act out the various parables, with varying degrees of success, includes Uzo Aduba, who impressively belts out the Act II opener, Turn Back, O Man, and Rashidra Scott, who demonstrates her own powerful voice on the jubilant tune, O Bless the Lord, My Soul. The two also complement each other handsomely on the beautiful ballad, By My Side.
Other performers who contribute to the production include Adam Kantor, Chelsea Krombach, Tracy McDowell, Orville Mendoza, Ruth Pferdehirt and Christopher Spaulding.
Kansas City Costume decks out the supporting youth ensemble in vibrant primary colors. The lighting by F. Mitchell Dana is rich and vibrant, accentuated especially on the vaudeville bit, and properly showcases Stefanie Hansen’s playground design, while Darren Lee’s choreography suitably captures the positive tone of the show, simple but straightforward in its design and execution.
Godspell, if not as compelling as Jesus Christ Superstar, is nonetheless brisk (less than two hours) and entertaining if you focus on the music and content, and not the performance, of its story.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.