By Donald V. Calamia, EncoreMichigan.com
If I had kept a log of every show I’ve attended over the past 40-plus years, I suspect the production I’ve seen more than any other would be “Godspell.” The 1971 musical brings to life the Gospel according to Saint Matthew and was produced by countless high school, college, community and professional theaters throughout the late ’70s and ’80s thanks to its relatively small cast (for a musical, that is), its tuneful and popular songs (“Day by Day” peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972), its cheap set and costumes, and creator John-Michael Tebelak’s unique approach that encourages directors and actors to improvise in the telling of Jesus’ parables.
As you might imagine, that last part has both blessed and cursed many a production of “Godspell” over the decades.
Originally set on a playground with the actors dressed in clown-like outfits to convey their innocence, overly creative directors have sometimes placed the show in rather bizarre settings such as a post-apocalyptic world or the Wild West – which made you wonder what drugs the director ingested when he or she came up with their concept.
And some approaches are just too precious for their own good. (“Hey, look! We’re funny and we know it,” some productions scream way too loudly.) Thankfully, Daniel C. Cooney of The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter eschewed “putting his mark” on the show by stripping it of the barnacles its accumulated over the years and returning it to its basics. In other words, it’s the message and the music that’s emphasized rather than a high concept and actors who mug their way through the show. The result, then, is a thoroughly delightful production that will entertain young and old alike this Easter season.
Set in a long-abandoned theater – and minus the somewhat irritating Tower of Babel that generally opens the show – John the Baptist (Brian Thibault) gathers the flock to announce the arrival of Jesus (Rusty Mewha). At first, Jesus’ teachings are all fun and games, but that changes when the traitorous apostle Judas (Thibault again) sells him out for 30 pieces of silver and Jesus is crucified for his actions. (Politics haven’t changed much except for how we discredit or eliminate our rabble rousers; today we have MSNBC, CNN and Fox for that.)
Running a few minutes under two-hours, Cooney’s production never dawdles. Rather, it briskly moves from parable to parable, barely catching its collective breath along the way. What can make or break the show, however, are the skills and personalities of its performers, and here Cooney’s production shines.
Mewha’s Jesus strikes the perfect balance: He’s neither the super-serious savior nor the overly animated clown. Instead, he’s a Jesus who knows how to boogie, but he also knows when to reign it in.
Thibault has all the right moves and shares one of the most creative moments in the show with Mewha: Their “All for the Best” is truly that – one of the best numbers of the night. (You’ll have to catch the show to find out why.)
The remaining eight disciples who complete the ensemble have fine comedic skills and are all strong singers. (The music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz are in good hands with this cast.) The incredible vocal range displayed by Amy Smidebush in the early number “Save the People” immediately sets the tone for the rest of the show. (She adds a depth that’s often missing from other productions of “Godspell.”)
And while all the others add to the production’s rich tapestry, two in particular merit special attention. You can’t help but fall in love with blonde and squeaky Tara Tomcsik who opens the second act with a laugh-inducing “Learn Your Lessons Well.” Her “nemesis” is the tap-dancing Brian E. Buckner who “triples” as an actor, pianist and music director. His onstage participation is yet another fine wrinkle to the show, which made me wonder if he’s ever considered creating a one-man show for himself. I’d sure pay to see it!
With far fewer people to move about the stage than she’s used to, Choreographer Barb Cullen has great fun showcasing pretty much every dance style you can think of – and it’s all executed with perfection by the cast.
Leo Babcock’s set looks like pretty much every decaying and decrepit theater still standing in Detroit – and its proscenium arch is especially noteworthy. Lighting by Daniel Walker is often another character in the show. (The crucifixion scene, with Thibault watching from afar and above, is especially chilling.)
So when a friend asked recently if I was tired of “Godspell,” The Encore’s production explains why my answer was “no.” It’s not the material that gets stale; it’s its execution that matters. And Cooney and his cast prove my point beyond a shadow of a doubt. (In fact, the performance was so hot on opening night that even the fire alarm chimed in, thanks to the heavy use of fog late in the second act.)
For tickets and showtimes, visit EncoreMichigan.com.
Donald V. Calamia is the editorial director of EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. He is also the theater editor of Between The Lines, for which he created The Wilde Awards, a “must attend” annual event at Detroit’s Gem Theatre that honors the work produced by the state’s professional theaters. Calamia is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Theatre Critics Association.