Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: AUGUST 21, 2009
So, what’s the Good Word? “ Godspell .” The perennial 1970 musical about the last five days of the life of Jesus is getting its fourth incarnation at Lamb’s Players Theatre. And that’s the Gospel truth. This smart, sharp and engaging production is staged at the Lambs’ new downtown space, the Horton Grand Theatre, in an open-ended run. And it should last a long time.
Based on the Gospel According to Matthew, the freewheeling, vaudevillian show started as an improvisational school project, created by John-Michael Tebelak for his master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It was soon obvious that the show had legs, so another Carnegie Mellon alum, Stephen Schwartz, a Nice Jewish Boy, was brought in to write new songs about that other Nice Jewish boy, Jesus of Nazareth. Schwartz was working on “Pippin” at the time, and he went on to score movies and create the little, small-scale musical that’s currently at the Civic Theatre… “Wicked.”
The structure of this show, with the disciples originally played as a kind of flower-child troupe of clowns, retells popular parables such as Lazarus, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. There are lessons here for anyone of any religious or secular persuasion. It’s all about a charismatic leader who takes a ragtag group of disparate people and creates a community of caring, consideration and compassion. The show ends with the crucifixion, and in this production, Christ is hoisted into the air on his cross. A dramatic and powerful final stage picture, which actually looks a little scary for the actor, though the ebullient Lance Arthur Smith seems to take it in stride.
When he first meets his flock, they’re just everyday folks, somewhat narcissistic, hedonistic and materialistic. Over the course of two-acts, they’re transformed into true believers. Along the way, there are many comical moments, including local and topical references – from Chuck E. Cheese to Sarah Palin .
The singing is outstanding; under the direction of Lambs artistic director Robert Smyth , the ensemble of seven displays vocal heft and versatility, as well as great comic chops and impressive physicality. A chinning bar that bisects the stage gets a serious workout. The parables are acted out in a never-ending array of amusing, inventive costumes. The score gets some sprucing up with imaginative arrangements. But the messages are never buried beneath the hoopla and high jinks.
When the musical was written, the locale was never specified in the text; it was just intended to be “a playground of the imagination,” which gives theaters a whole lot of leeway. This iteration is set in what you might call LambieLand , a whimsical hodgepodge of set pieces from years of Lamb’s Players Theatre’s prior shows. As a little side-activity, it’s fun to try to match the prop to the production.
So basically, what you’ve got here is a musical that provides amusement, entertainment and maybe even enlightenment. We can all say ‘Amen’ to that.
The Lamb’s Players production of “ Godspell ” is an open-ended run, at the Horton Grand Theatre, downtown.
©2009 PAT LAUNER