Hope Summer Rep’s ‘Godspell’ all for the best
HOLLAND, Mich.–You might expect a 47-year-old musical about the teachings of Jesus to be a snore. But the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre’s production of Godspell is so energetic, so packed with personality, that you can barely catch your breath. Nodding off isn’t even a possibility.
Friday’s opening audience was clapping along on some numbers, laughing frequently and on their feet at curtain call.
Lenny Banovez, Hope Rep’s new artistic director, is the director of the show which includes an expanded cast of 19, almost double the original 10. The production uses the revised script from the 2011 Broadway revival so the casual references are up-to-date. But to this retired journalist, the score seems essentially the same as it was when I was as young as the 20-somethings on stage.
The tale features some Biblical characters– Jesus, Judas and John the Baptist–but the rest of the cast use their own names and seem to represent all of us. Although some of the dramatic moments of Christ’s life are included, such as his baptism, the betrayal and crucifixion, the script focuses more on his teachings and how the tribe of followers is transformed.
The music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz are absolutely infectious, especially in the hands of such a talented cast. “Day by Day,” a simple, repetitive prayer, became a pop hit when the show debuted in 1971 and has been one of my all-time favorite songs. Cast member Devri Chism sings this number with a tender, almost angelic touch.
But several other pieces stood out even more in Hope’s production. Sara Ornelas set the house on fire with her powerful performance of “Bless the Lord.” Benjamin Lohrberg as Jesus and Eric Robinson as Judas danced like a vaudeville soft shoe duo to “All For the Best.” And Rachel Davenport stirred our souls with the catchy “Learn Your Lessons Well.”
Much of the script is familiar parables but the tribe enacts these stories with a healthy dose of humor and other touches. For the tale of The Good Samaritan, Sara Ornelas set a beat on a bongo. Marcus Martin presented hilarious charade-like dance moves for the finale of The Prodigal Son. And the audience loved it when the whole tribe turned into baaaaa-ing sheep and goats for a parable about dividing the flock, especially when the goats dropped dead in unison.
Lohrberg’s Jesus is exuberant and childlike. He easily seduces the tribe with his buoyant personality and wise teachings. But in the second act he becomes more serious and anxious because he knows his death is imminent. Robinson’s Judas stands out from the tribe, partly because of his height and the sock hat he wears. His distrust of Jesus builds during the first act. But Robinson also participates with the tribe members in telling parables, creating a variety of entertaining personalities.
Scenic designer Sarah Pearline has created an artistic set of lumber scaffolding with multi-layered cubby holes to show off the four-piece rock band. Music director Alex Thompson is at the keyboard, singing along and bouncing with the performers on the stage. In a playful interlude before the second act Sara Ornelas crawls into each of the empty cubby holes and takes a turn on keyboard, guitar, bass and drums before the musicians return to claim their posts.
The scaffold is joined to the stage with steps and a beautiful slanted platform that serves as a slide for fast access to the stage as well as the cross for the climactic crucifixion. Costume designer Leslie Vaglica has dressed the tribe comfortably in jeans, shorts, T-shirts and tennis shoes to facilitate their active dance routines. Choreographer J. M. Rebudal has done an excellent job creating mass movement for this large cast, as well as a delightful stomp and jive routine that makes its own music.
“Godspell” is definitely a show for the 21st Century. The wise words of Jesus resonate well in today’s world. “Overcome evil with love.” “Don’t worry about tomorrow.” And the positive energy of this tribe of enthusiastic followers is the perfect antidote to today’s negativity.