YSU’s ‘Godspell’ Is an Audience Pleaser

By J.E.Ballantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – “Godspell,” a rock musical that has been around since 1971, opened at YSU’s Ford Theater on Friday night. Don’t think that such an aged musical must be old, decrepit or out of date. This production is anything but. Consisting of a cast of 10 YSU students, they breath new life into a musical that just doesn’t seem to age anyway.

Although the lead character in the piece is Jesus, it is not a story about Jesus. Rather, it is a cleverly constructed musical about the teachings of Jesus. Told in parables, mainly from the Gospel of Matthew, the cast uses a wide variety of methods to convey the various parables. From a circus feel, to mime, to engaging unsuspecting audience members into the show, it helps the Gospel of Matthew come alive to all in attendance.

The show starts out on a bit of a slow pace with the introduction of various philosophers from Socrates, to Sartre, to Thomas Aquinas and others spewing out their various ideologies. All of this culminates with John the Baptist, played by Kyle Hudson, decreeing “Prepare Ye, The Way of the Lord.” From here the show kicks into high gear,

John Bearss portrays a Jesus that is quite different than one would expect if you haven’t experienced this show previously. Since this show is not about the man himself, there is considerable latitude in any actor’s characterization. He presents the parables but in a modern and humorous way connecting in special ways with each individual cast member. He’s a man, as down to earth as everyone else in the show. He is not portrayed as a Biblical character. He’s funny, he’s serious, he’s even acrobatic to a degree. But most importantly he exudes the love he has for each of the other characters.

Bearss was a perfect choice for the role. He seems very at home with the role with his acting not seeming like acting at all. He is smooth, quick, energetic and is in full charge every inch of the way. Musically he shines in “All For the Best,” a vaudevillian number with Hudson, “Beautiful City” and the “Finale.”

Even with a lead character, “Godspell” is truly an ensemble show. Each character gets his or her solo or lead spot at least once, some more than once. The characters, using variations of their own names as character names, are not disciples of Jesus but rather a collection of friends dressed in everything from coveralls to blue jeans and brightly colored contemporary outfits. Each actor plays many parts.

The magic of the show emanates from the enthusiasm of the cast. And this cast has enthusiasm to spare. Since the program did not indicate who sang each song, I can’t single out individual performances. I have seen productions of “Godspell” where a character’s traditional song went to someone else – the show is that flexible.

“Day By Day,” probably the most noteworthy song in the showm was well done and was staged a bit differently than it is in most productions. This song is sort of the cornerstone of the show musically due to it’s popularity after the original production opened.

Other Act I numbers such as “Bless The Lord,” “All Good Gifts,” and “Light of the World” were all standouts. What added much to the show was the cast’s relationship with the audience. Much of the action is played in front of the stage on audience level with actors going out into the audience to incorporate them almost as participants. Some audience members were brought up on stage to aid in some of the parables. Some of these worked well, a couple did not.

Act II of “Godspell” is a real turn from Act I. Where Act I is up, energetic and fast-paced, Act II is much more solemn requiring a wide range of versatility for the cast. This cast did not disappoint. Even though it has a lively beginning with a great rendition of “Turn Back, O Man,” Act II then heads toward the betrayal of Jesus and the crucifixion. But there were many highlights as the cast went all out on numbers like “By My Side,” “On the Willows” and “Finale.”

Director Adam Day Howard has brought a great cast and a great feel to this 2011 revival version of the show. “Godspell” is great fun. Someone once told me that even a bad production of “Godspell” is good because the show itself is so good. Well, this production is first-rate with a young, energetic and electric cast of 10 actors that the audience fell right in line with from start to finish.

Choreography, which was uncredited, was creative and imaginative and added to the songs and transitions nicely. Costume Design by Katherine Garlick added color and character and gave a nice familiar feel to each character on stage. Todd Dicken’s scenic design was simple consist.ing of two scaffolds with stairs which were moveable to different areas as needed. The simplicity helped to maintain focus on the characters.

Garlick also handled prop design with everything from kazoos to additional costume pieces for selected scenes and magic tricks. Ellen Licitra’s lighting gave the show a depth of color, which helped it spring into the audience. The back wall served as a perfect color pallet that gave both a circus feel but also created the perfect visual mood for Act II. Her side lighting created mood and helped to create dramatic effect.

Joseph Spurio served as vocal music director with Kent Engelhardt serving as musical director in the pit.

“Godspell” is full of fun. If you are looking for a different way to “Learn Your Lessons Well,” well this is the show for you.

“Godspell” will continue. Nov. 12, 18, 19 at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13, 20 at 2 p.m.

Pictured: The cast of the University Theatre production of the musical “Godspell.”

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