Godspell | Peabody Opera House

Godspell 75If there’s one thing you must know if you too are a Godspell virgin, the soundtrack alone does not do this show justice.

Godspell 500

As of a few days ago, I knew nothing about Godspell. I gave the soundtrack a listen or two before show time, but if there’s one thing you must know if you too are a Godspell virgin, the soundtrack alone does not do this show justice, nor does it reflect the mood of the play in its entirety. From a mere listen, I went into the show expecting it to be an overly moralistic, though upbeat, telling of Jesus’ parables. Well guess what folks, in the midst of hearing some vital guidelines for getting into Heaven, there are several laughs to be had, as Godspell is very much a comedy!

Act I operates like a sketch show, Vaudeville-esq in nature. As the show begins, the cast emerges, some of them toting suitcases, each of which feature the name of a philosopher. They babel their respective philosophy, talking over one another in “Tower of Babble.” John the Baptist (Graham Parkhurst) calls them to order with a blow of his horn, and we are thrust into what I immediately deemed to be the most fun Sunday School class I’ve ever sat through. (That is not to suggest that you have to be religious to enjoy this play. As is touched on during the production, Jesus, nor his followers boast about Christianity as that would displease the Father).

The ensemble is baptized and exit the stage. John next baptizes Jesus (Jake Stern) and the cast remerges in quirky, almost child-like clothing. Though never officially referred to as such, I assumed the cast/ensemble to be Jesus’ apostles, as one among them is Judas (also played by Graham Parkhurst), the follower who will ultimately betray him. Jesus exercises the utmost patience in his conversation with the group members, but there is a definite sense that time is of the essence; his transition between tales move at a finger-snap pace. Jesus knows he only has so much time to teach his followers all that it will take to save them.

Though the moral truths of the lessons are essential to Jesus’ mission, the telling of the parables are where all the fun is to be had. Almost every story is peppered with current cultural references, whether it be a Lindsey Lohan comment or a Lady Gaga impersonation. For example, in the parable of Lazarus, a rich man denies a begging Lazarus, and the rich man, who is condemned to Hell, is portrayed as Donald Trump, accent, hair-jokes and all. The references are hardly ever corny, and if they are, the company recognizes that, which makes the audience laugh even harder.

Most of the parables are acted out by the ensemble as plays within the play, though puppet shows, songs, and dance numbers are incorporated throughout in a mix of gospel, pop, and rock sound. On three different occasions, the ensemble pulled members from the audience to help them play games like charades and Pictionary. (During intermission, the ensemble even distributed little Dixie cups full of red wine to the first few rows of the audience).

The second act, though still fun, is immediately more somber than the first. Judas, Jesus, and I imagine most of the audience know what is coming. The songs sung during this act are the most beautiful of the production. Jesus sings of his dream for “A Beautiful City,” of men, and, in my favorite song, “We Beseech Thee,” the ensemble sings about love. The production does not try to suggest what becomes of Jesus once he is condemned, and because of this fact, among others, I’m confident in concluding that Godspell is not a play about religion; it is a play about love and trust.

The set for this show is minimal. There is a raised platform center stage where the ensemble perform and are taught the parables. The band, members from which occasionally interact with the cast, sit spread out on bleachers behind the action. The cast is extremely talented, particularly Stern, as Jesus. He plays teacher with the utmost believability. His portrayal is at once pure and selfless, not to mention fun. His embodiment of purity radiates from the stage, and like the ensemble, the audience falls in love with him for the man of faith and love he is. Ensemble members not already mentioned include Lisa Michelle Cornelius, Michael De Rose, Michael Hogeveen, Stacey Kay, Ivan Lo, Alessia Lupiano, Rebecca McCauley, and Janelle Murray.

Godspell is a production not easily forgotten. I’ve been racking my brain trying to decide where it ranks in my list of favorite musicals, and though it doesn’t place very high for its music, it ranks in my top three for storylines and in-between the music dialogue. | Megan Washausen

Godspell runs through Nov. 17.

 

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