It’s not your grandparents’ Godspell anymore, just one of several reasons to catch Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi’s revival of the 1971 Stephen Schwartz off-Broadway-to-Broadway classic as reconceived for The Great White Way in 2011 and now brought to effervescent life by an impressive young cast at the Simi Valley Performing Arts Center.
Truth be told, I’ve never been much of a fan of the original 1971 Godspell. I find its compilation of Parables Jesus Told rather too Sunday School for my secular tastes, even spiced with the 21st Century sensibility of the recent Broadway revival and despite some terrific tunes by Stephen Schwartz circa The Early Years.
Still, with ARTOS’s David Daniels bringing one inventive director’s touch after another, Becky Castells’ choreography proving unfailingly imaginative, and a terrific cast of late-teens-early-20s triple-threats giving it their 110 percent, this is one Godspell that even a Godspell Grinch like this reviewer can enjoy from (not too long after) its start to its heartrending finish.
The “not so long after” refers to the entirely dispensable show-opener, “Tower Of Babble,” which has the ensemble vocalizing to the words of Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marianne Williamson, and a half a dozen other philosophers great-and-not-so-great while searching for signals on their cell phones, a number not in the off-Broadway original and for good reason. No matter how imaginatively staged or excitingly performed, this cacophonic opening number’s sole purpose seems to be to make Act One run longer than necessary.
Thank Godspell, then, for the arrival of John The Baptist (Austin Robert Miller) and his considerably more hummable exhortation to “Prepare Ye” (the way of the Lord), i.e. Jesus Christ Himself, whose arrival in a white wifebeater/boxers combo introduces us to Kolton Kolbaba’s sexy Messiah and a gorgeously sung “Save The People” as newly baptized cast members change from city duds into Cyndi Caldwell’s clever, Technicolor-iffic costumes.
From then on it’s parable after parable (book by John-Michael Tebelak from The Gospel According To Matthew), told in an inspired mix of genres from vaudeville/burlesque to Saturday Night Live/MADtv spiced with hiphop sass and B-boy rhythms pretty much unheard of when Godspell debuted way back when folks “rapped” on doors and not about something on their minds.
Daniels and company use Pictionary, charades, improvised percussion, and occasional audience participation to tell each new parable more ingeniously than the one before.
Shannon Anderson’s lovely rendition of Godspell’s Greatest Hit “Day By Day,” Heather Siembieda’s infectious “Learn Your Lessons Well,” and Mazie Wilson’s big-voiced “Bless The Lord” are all winners, and when the power-piped Kolbaba and rising-star phenom Miller take centerstage for a Chicago-esque “All For The Best,” it’s a gender-bending Velma/Roxie-style showstopper. (Miller returns to powerful effect as Judas in Act Two.)
Jared Price hits some high notes indeed in the lovely “All Good Gifts,” Andrew Metzger’s soulful “Light Of The World” closes Act One with rock star panache, and the female trio of Megan Tisler, Katherine Bottoms, and Wilson (showing off keyboard talents in addition to her a-Mazie-ng vocals) open Act Two with a stirring reprise of “Learn Your Lessons Well.”
A sultry Dani Nicole channels her inner vamp-in-red-feather-boa for “Turn Back O Man,” Briana Brooks sings a powerful “By My Side,” and a charismatic Patrick Batiste gets the entire cast a-bounce-bounce-bouncing to “We Beseech You.”
Kolbaba’s The Voice-ready pipes make for an especially beautiful “Beautiful City” and his duet of “On The Willows” with Wilson packs an emotional punch that had this reviewer wiping away tears.
Godspell is the best ARTOS production I’ve seen since 2012’s Spring Awakening, and for similar reasons. Unlike a Broadway blockbuster requiring a big budget (and more) to be an artistic success, Godspell works just fine on a single set (Seth Kamenow and Daniels’ is both simple and ingenious) and with so many up-and-comers auditioning locally on their way to successful professional careers, a director can pick and choose from the most talented young triple-threats around and cast them in age-appropriate roles. (No teenagers pretending to be in their thirties or forties in this one.)
Add to that a topnotch onstage orchestra led by musical director Matthew Park on piano (with Andy Moresi and Keith Murphy on guitars, Brennan Park on guitar and keyboard, Kevin Hart on bass, and Matt Jamele on drums), Kamenow’s mostly quite successful lighting design, and Brenda Miller’s myriad of props and you’ve got a community theater production that can hold its own against a higher-budget Equity Godspell.
Brenda Goldstein is stage manager and Kevin Kahm technical director. Tori Cusack is dance captain, Chris Grote lightboard operator, and Luther Cockrill and Carie Dean stage crew. Godspell is produced by Jan Glasband.
In the final analysis, I may never join the legion of theater aficionados who hold Godspell in high esteem but at least it’s not Cats, and I must admit… This one had me in its (God)spell.
Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi, Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.
August 3, 2014