Pros: Fun with music and a strong message
Cons: A major theological point that would have made the final better
The Bottom Line:
70’s stage play
Quirky but still fun
Wonderful Night at the Theater
Over 20 years ago, I first saw Godspell in the theater, and I very quickly fell in love with this quirky musical. I’ve bought two different versions of the soundtrack and the movie in the intervening years, but I haven’t gotten to see it in the theater since. When I saw that Glendale Centre Theatre, my favorite theater here in Southern California, was going to put it on, I immediately put it on my calendar.
If you aren’t familiar with this musical, it was originally produced in 1971 Off Broadway and is an early musical from Stephen Schwartz, composer of such musicals as Wicked and Pippin as well as songs for such Disney movies as Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Enchanted. This musical tells the story of the life of Jesus, and the “book,” aka the script, consists almost completely of texts from the Gospels. There are only 10 members of the cast, with many of them taking on various roles. Jesus is played by one person, but the rest of the characters help him act out what he is teaching. This is especially true when it comes to the parables. They transition into the songs are various times. A few of these songs are taken from the Bible, but most are completely original.
I cannot emphasize enough that this play is certainly something different. The first clue is Jesus’ costume. In this play, he is wearing a Superman hoodie and suspenders. The rest of the cast wear costumes that harken back to the 70’s. The acting is a mix of improve and vaudeville. Even knowing that, it still takes me about 20 minutes to fully get into the play or movie. But once I do, it is a ton of fun.
Obviously, the play walks a fine line of having fun and still being respectful of the source material, especially for those of us who are Christians. This production does a great job of that. There are a couple of moments I don’t like, but they are in the script and pass quickly.
And the singing. This cast is absolutely amazing! They were belting out the songs with gusto, and I was floored at the voices some of them had. While only two of the characters have names, every member of the cast gets his or her moment to shine, and they make the most of them. Some of the cast members even played instruments on stage, which I believe is a first, at least in the plays I’ve seen at this particular theater.
One reason I love Glendale Centre Theatre is because it is a theater in the round. The cast makes outstanding use of the stage. There are minimal sets and props, and they are constantly moving around the space. Because the audience is right there, they even get to involve us a couple of times, which adds to the fun. The choreography is top notch, and they even have added a few more modern jokes that the audience loved. My favorite adlib came in the song “Turn Back, O Man” and played off one of the lines in the song.
One of the oddities of the play is that the only other actor playing a certain part starts the play as John the Baptist and then becomes Judas after that. This is in the script, but why the script didn’t have two different actors play these two critical parts is beyond me.
It has been years since I saw the first production back in college, but as I recall, they included Jesus’ resurrection. The movie, famously, does not. This production also leaves it out. As a Christian, I found that very troubling. To quote Paul in I Corinthians 15, “If Christ has not raised from the dead, we are of all men most to be pitied.” I get what they were trying to say with the ending they did here, but I think it would have been more powerful with a resurrected Jesus. Apparently this version is truer to the script, so my issue is with the script. Still, I find it very disappointing.
That complaint aside, I loved it. The scripture coming to life in front of me touched me in a new way. I know the passages, but there were reminders I needed to hear yet again. The songs are wonderful; I have many of them memorized, but I loved seeing them performed again. While the first act is filled with fun, the second act gets more serious as the death of Jesus nears, and I was surprised I was almost crying at the end. The cast is that good.
The theater is normally dark Sunday through Wednesday, but they are putting on Godspell those days during the month of March. It is well worth making the extra effort to go it the play on these non-traditional days. Heck, if money weren’t tight right now, I’d certainly go back to see it again.