“Godspell,” the 1971 Stephen Schwartz musical with book by Michael-John Tebelak using Christian parables to enlighten and entertain is inordinately popular with community, church and youth groups. Who could object to a musical that preaches “turn the other cheek” and “blessed are the peace makers?” That’s exactly the challenge to me of presenting this anodyne pop classic. Many directors come up with activities and settings to flesh out the story theater structure. But how do you raise the stakes and create the compelling need for the Gospel of St. Matthew?
Welcome to the Covid world of director Alan Filderman’s “Godspell” playing in a tent behind the Colonial Theatre presented by the Berkshire Theatre Group. The evening starts with a recorded announcement from Kate Maguire who must have gone through many negotiations and safety measures to open this show and reminded us that we have always gathered in a theatre to ask “What does it mean to be human?”
Hanna Koczela, the host takes the stage, welcomes us and ushers the cast onstage where they take their places, introduce themselves as actors and share with us what the pandemic has done to them personally and how they have been doing in these horrific times. They talk of jobs lost, fear, isolation and despair. They have no idea what will come next. “The road ahead seems longer still.” It has the feeling of an encounter group. Under the restrictions placed on them to practice their craft, all seem less than fully functioning, productive adults capable of ministering to themselves or others.
“I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people” is repeated twice before all voices speak their truths urgently, simultaneously in a cacophonous babel. Judas (a strong Tim Jones) interrupts and leads them with “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”
This “Godspell” immediately sets up the circumstances for the need in the audience and the cast for the sermons pleasantly disguised as pop songs. The audience has been led through the Colonial Theatre and out the back door to a tent in what must be a loading dock area behind the theatre, protected from the street noise. Temperatures are taken, masks are worn, phone numbers are offered for tracing and distance is maintained physically in the halls, in the bathrooms and under the tent where all parties are seated six feet apart.
The cast is seated at different heights (on a stair unit, a high chair, a bean bag) with distance between them, five in the back row upstage and five downstage. There are also four rolling plexiglass screen dividers to separate the cast from each other and serve as a protective wall between the singer and the audience and the rest of the cast. The upstage wall is in different shades of light brown wood with the words “God is love IS Love is God.” Scenic design by Randall Parsons is appealing, simple and effective. Matthew E. Adelson’s lighting design creates a variety of different looks for the 20 different numbers. The three-piece band led by Music Director Andrew Baumer was spot on and I especially appreciated the excellent and muscular guitar work by Dave Brown. Costumes were many variations on distressed denim by Hunter Kaczorowski which were a witty take on the playground costumes of previous productions.
Nicholas Edwards is terrific and effortlessly holds center stage as Jesus. He has an easy and energetic approach to the lessons and never lets them become anything approaching cloying or pedantic. He has obviously invested a great deal in performing this show at this time as his tears in the second act proved. Early in the show, his leading the cast in “Save the People” may have been one of my favorite numbers of the night as it established the dire straits we find ourselves in. Mr. Edwards also did a superlative job on “Beautiful City.” He had a slow, steady build which was powerful, clear and expansive with his vision for the future. It was especially powerful Tuesday night on the day that Kamala Harris was selected as Joe Biden’s running mate.
The diverse cast works together delightfully, which must have been tough with the lack of contact. They sound even better together. There are many appealing and distinct voices in the cast. The show’s signature song “Day by Day” is taken by Isabel John who comes from Peruvian descent and half the song is sung in Spanish. She brings a warm openness that is impossible to resist. Other favorites in the evening were Emily Koch’s “Bless the Lord” and an eye popping “Learn Your Lessons Well” performed by Kimberly Immanuel with an intricate tap that had Jesus responding “You’ve got to show me how to do that.” Choreography is by Gerry McIntyre who summons miracles under the constraining circumstances of limited stage and lack of interaction. Everyone in the cast which also included Alex Getlin, Najah Hetsberger, Dan Rosales, Michael Wartella and Zach Williams had a strong, engaging presence that made the most of their moments.
Much is made throughout the show of the conditions we are living in. Masks are worn onstage when passing by other cast members, the plexiglass screens are re-positioned frequently and the baptism and crucifixion are mimed. Tim Jones as Judas and Nicholas Edwards perform their soft-shoe number “All for the Best” with straw hats and yard sticks in the place of canes to insure distancing. It’s still “Godspell” but there is no face-paint or theater games, instead a sometimes painful urgency that speaks to our lives lived today urgently and beautifully.
It was a courageous and moving night to be in the audience for such a stirring production after five months in the desert.