If Miracle Mile ever had a power outage, all Coral Gables would have to do is call out the cast of Godspell to light up the entire city. Too bad there was only a smattering of a crowd at the Thursday night performance that I attended. Still, the electricity was fully intact. Kudos to these professionals for giving it their all when they could have slacked a bit since they were only playing to half a house.
C’mon, good people, go and see this show. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of this half-baked 1970s clone of Hair, but I must admit that after seeing this creatively rendered production, I may rethink my position.
Godspell is one of those “let’s put on a show” theater pieces because it requires little to bring it to the stage, so virtually every high school and community theater has done their own version of Godspell, but seeing it performed so well here, and by professionals, is quite different. Director David Arisco has a vision for this show and it comes through, creating a celebratory experience that’s entirely infectious.
For a better perspective of the show, here’s the meat and potatoes of the genesis of Godspell. John-Michael Tebelak created his script after being inspired by a Sunday church service. It was his master’s thesis for a directing project at Carnegie Mellon University during the late 1960s. His first version had a score that was mostly from lyrics out of a hymnal But after a couple of producers (one of whom was Angela Lansbury’s brother, Edgar) saw a small production of the piece, they realized it had money-making potential. They hired Stephen Schwartz to write real songs for the show. Yes, it’s that Stephen Schwartz of now Wicked fame. And, as you can imagine, the thing took off, first opening off-Broadway in 1971, and then moving to Broadway in 1976. A recent Broadway revival of the show just closed last June after a nine-month run. It’s set for a national tour in the coming year.
The show is an interesting ditty. The Gospel According to St. Matthew is presented through a series of skits with a soundtrack of pop, rock, folk, and blues tunes as the icing that completes the proverbial cake.
Arisco knows that keeping the show simple and fun is the best way to play it. At face value, it looks effortless, but there’s a lot going on in this re-imagined production. First, he’s assembled a cast that works so well together they seemed like they are joined at the hip. I imagine countless “trust” exercises going on in the weeks before rehearsals since this cast is ensemble with a capital E. There isn’t a weak link in the bunch and each play their part with the earnestness of these street people apostles that’s required to make the grand finale work. If there isn’t attention paid upfront to the build to the final scene, it can be a bit of a letdown, but Arisco creates the perfect foundation for the spectacle to work from the opening strains to the very end
Josh Canfield leads the cast as Jesus and he plays the role as a gentle leader. His Jesus is every guy and girl’s best friend. Canfield plays the role light, when it’s required, but shows depth in his acting when there’s sadness and seriousness to be conveyed.
Equal in strength and delivery is Nick Duckart, who is a familiar face in Playhouse productions having been seen in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Next to Normal. As Judas, he has one of the more difficult roles in the show as it the only other part in addition to Jesus that actually develops throughout.
The other eight members of the cast, including Henry Gainza, Jeni Hacker, Shea Hess, Kareema Khouri , Heather Kopp, Clay Cartland, Cindy Pearce and Don Steward, each bring to the table their own singular style with plenty of pizazz and some incredible voice work. The powerful live back up band shows outstanding musicianship being able to play a variety of the styles Schwartz calls for in his score.
There is fun to be had in this Godspell, including humorous pop culture updates that cover everything from the Kardashians, Lindsay Lohan, Donald Trump, Schwartz’s Wicked fame to the upcoming political elections: “I’m Jesus and I approved this message.”
Truth be told, Actors Playhouse may have turned this Godspell cynic into a believer.
Godspell at the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables through Nov. 4. 305-441-4181 or www.actorsplayhouse.org