by Lisa Jarisch
I have been waiting not-so-patiently many a year for the Mac-Haydn Theatre to take on this show, one of my absolute personal favorites. Without shame or embarrassment, I confess that Godspell holds a special place in my heart as the only show I have ever “graced” with my on-stage presence, in a production by the North Adams Stagehands, patiently and creatively directed by the late Janice Kucher.
The current production of Godspell at the Mac most assuredly bears no resemblance to that fondly-remembered summer of ’78, nor is it the sugar-coated, fluffy cotton candy Godspell which came to off-Broadway in 1971. Those productions, as well as the film which followed, were brimming with a circus-like atmosphere and populated with happy and peppy and bursting with love people dancing and singing, filled with the love and the joy of following Jesus and his teachings in a merry romp through the Gospel of Matthew. This is not the soft-sell, spoon-fed religion for the masses version offered up in Sunday School and catechism class days of yore….and thank God, or in this case, director Trey Compton, for that.
This Godspell, this gospel according to Compton, is an edgy, piercing, gritty, brilliant piece of theatre, certain to take its place as one of, if not THE, most stellar productions of the 2023 season. Compton has taken the skeleton of the original piece and built an entirely new body of work, maintaining the integrity of the Gospel message while injecting new depths of meaning to the simple parables, stories and teachings that make-up the bulk of the production. The songs remain the same, the plot most assuredly remains true to sharing the Gospel of Matthew, but this is singularly unique and masterful production, filled with contemporary references, exposing an occasional seamy underbelly of the beasts of betrayal, and overall offering gritty, sharp-edged, sometimes sharp-tongued lessons in life, love, and faith.
Cue the Gospel. As the ensemble cast of eight enters, each clutches a cell phone in his or her hand as if they are the last lifelines to their very existence. The soon-to-be disciples are quite literally separated one from another by virtue of Compton’s sharp and intentional staging, scattered about the theatre like the wandering souls they are at this moment. Looking for all the world like a world-weary crowd gathered on a dark subway track awaiting the last train of the day, they begin to deliver the Prologue/Tower of Babble, a number not always included in every production, but thankfully included here. Offered a capella, as it should be, individual philosophies of assorted and sundry thinkers are musically pronounced by each character, until eventually devolving into a babbling, indecipherable, but yet somehow discordantly harmonious, cacophony. A veritable tower of babble indeed.
Bring on the John the Baptist to stop the discord and save the day ! And indeed, enter John, momentarily to be Judas, imploring the rabble to “Prepare Ye” the way of the Lord, which they do, depositing their cell phones and thus leaving behind the trappings and the shackles of the “wordly world”, in preparation for their journey with Jesus. For the remainder of the show, the Ensemble Cast of eight swells and fills the stage with their presence as they act out the stories and parables offered up by Jesus as he attempts to impart his lessons to the world through this “merry band” of devoted, zealous followers. All carry their own names as that of their character; each disciple also literally carries with them their own baggage, in the form of small square grey suitcases or boxes, from which at various times they extract props, puppets and apparel seamlessly integrated into the telling of each lesson and parable. In addition to the musical numbers which give each cast member their own moment in the spotlight, these eight performers are on stage every single minute of the two hour performance, along with Jesus and Judas; they don’t miss a beat, a line, or a single step, and to a person, they perform with unflagging dedication and whole-hearted commitment to their roles.
In a clear nod to the rock-concert world, each would-be disciple then receives their “stamp of admission” to the “production” Jesus is about to present, as they offer up their arms for a fluttering pink butterfly stamp while Jesus, who has quietly entered the scene, implores his Heavenly Father to “Save the People.” With this “baptism” complete, the Gospel according to St. Matthew now begins to unfold, albeit perhaps not as your local pastor might offer it. Parables are presented, games are played, and lessons are taught, all in rapid-fire succession. After enacting the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, and being told that to follow Jesus,a disciple must be pure of heart and soul, Stephanie Prestage gives the first of the disciple “solos” scattered like good seed through the show, delivering a beautiful rendition of “Day by Day,” probably the most recognizable song associated with the show. Her strong, pure voice swells with her newly-burgeoning love and desire to follow Jesus, and sets the bar high for all the solos to follow. Happily for the audience, that bar is met by each and every performer and performance that follows Prestage.
In the interest of expedient critiquing, and to assure each performer receives the accolades to which they are justly entitled, here follow the kudos due each individual performance. Be assured, gentle reader, that wherever each solo opportunity appears, it fits seamlessly into the production, elevating the high quality caliber of talent that bursts from this production. As one of my companions noted after the Opening day evening performance, “Those girls can SING!” He is not wrong, the females individually and collectively offer some of the strongest, truest, most beautiful renditions of the Not that the males are lacking in vocal chops. Far from it!
Following the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, played with abandon and verve by the ensemble, Kassi McMillan enthusiastically exhorts her companions, and the audience, to Learn your Lessons well; clearly McMillan has learned well the lessons of pitch-perfect delivery and projection.
Following a delightful retelling of the God and Money story (AKA The Two Masters), presented as a parody of The Bachelor, complete with Taylor Swift references and allusions to the joy of the Sonoma Valley, Cydney Gleckner raises the roof and brings the house down with “Bless The Lord.” The applause for her vocal performance was well-deserved, but perhaps equally worthy, if not more so, of applause was her ability to perform the piece to perfection, remaining upright and maintaining her balance as she was whirled, twirled, twisted and otherwise tossed about, while perched atop a wheeled cart. Following a rollicking duet of “All for the Best,” complete with vaudeville-style soft-shoe, performed by Jesus and Judas, comes Parable of the Sower of the Seeds, after which Anthony Velez steps up to offer the gentle “All Good Gifts,” affirming the generosity and goodness of God in offering His word to all who will hear it. Velez makes the most of his moment in the spotlight, delivering a soulful, soul-filled interpretation of this reflective, quiet moment. On the heels of Velez’s comes Matthew Harper Stevenson closing Act One with “Light of the World” enthusiastically and energetically leading the cast in a rousing celebration of their new-forged love for each other.
Act Two offers up more stellar solo moments of note from the remaining members of the ensemble cast.Clad in a slinky, shiny, shimmering, green lame’ jumpsuit, Bella DePaola offers up a sultry rendition of “Turn Back, O Man” ostensibly meant to encourage the abandonment of temporal and physical pleasures and pursuits, but also foreshadowing the coming degeneration of the fragile fellowship forged among the disciples, and the deterioration of Jesus’s and Judas’s bromance as the inevitable Biblically foretold conclusion approaches. DePaola slinks and struts about the stage with a lithe sensuousness that leaves little to the imagination; her stage presence is as strong and true as her vocalizations. Amber Mawande-Spytek, who is surely making a name for herself with standout roles and performances each season she has graced the Mac with her presence and her talent, adds another signature number to her repertoire with a moving rendition of “By My Side”, following her enactment of the Woman Caught in Adultery. Her pleading entreaty to Jesus, as he tells her to go and sin no more, is filled with longing as she asks “Where are you going?” and begs him to take her with him on his journey. She creates a quiet, gentle, contemplative pause in the action which has already begun its rapid spiraling toward its predestined conclusion. In his turn, Jake Koch embraces his moment in the limelight, leading the players in a raucous and rousing “We Beseech Thee”, as the “goats” doomed to damnation for their earthly transgressions beg for mercy. Koch has a voice that no doubt reached the heavens with his appeal. Bravo, Sir, for giving goats everywhere the chance they deserve for repentance.
As for the Principle Players of the piece, they are nothing short of spectacular from Curtain Up (admittedly merely a figure of speech at the Mac) to Curtain Call. Conor Fallon gives us a Jesus who is a mix of James Dean, without a motorcycle, and bad-boy greaser Kenickie, without his Grease Lightning hot rod, but with a gentleness of spirit one would expect to find in the Son of God..and the son of Man. He enters the stage ,and the story, oozing boyish charm, with an almost happy-go-lucky attitude toward his mission, and gradually begins to demonstrate all the magnetism of a cult leader, as he reaches out to a ragtag, disparate group of eager followers ready, willing and able to be molded into a dedicated band of believers . Fallon gives a bravura performance in his vocals and his acting, moving deftly from the enthusiastic first days as a preacher of parables, teller of tales and teacher of morals, to the tortured Son of Man approaching the end predestined for him as the Son of God. His growing awareness that his time on earth is rapidly coming to an end bursts through in Act Two as he berates the “Pharisees” for their hypocrisy, lamenting with barely concealed fury “Alas for You”. The harsh, strident, almost sickeningly bright light that bathes the stage with his shout of “Blind fools” is an ironic counterpoint to the comment, and makes the moment all the more dramatic. With this number, and continuing on to the end, Fallon paints us a vivid vocal and visual portrait of the Son of Man beginning to “morph” into an angry, anxious, scared, discouraged,Son of God who, despite the fears and misgivings natural to his human estate, nonetheless recognizes and struggles to embrace the destiny that awaits him.
It is always a joy to have Mac-Haydn favorite Andre Burton Kelley grace the Mac-Haydn stage, and in his role as John/Judas he is in his element, giving glorious depth of voice to each and every lyric. His vocal pacing is impeccable, and it is pure joy to listen to every note he offers up. He is a consummate and classic Judas, strutting about the stage with bravado, not just a little arrogance, and eventually more than a modicum of fear and guilt, and his voice does ample justice to each opportunity it is given. His bathed in the shadows delivery of “On the Willows,” throbs with the pain,despair,sadness, and guilt of knowing he has been chosen as The Betrayer, the Traitor; as he watches the other disciples depart from the Last Supper with a farewell blessing from Jesus, his anguish is palpable and real.
Throughout the show,Fallon and Kelley are the perfect “Frenemies,” as we clearly know the fate Jesus and Judas are destined to face together. Perhaps nowhere are they more perfectly in sync with one another than when executing a perfect soft shoe number while performing “dueling” lyrics in “All for the Best”, which comes complete with a lithe, sinewy, hip-swiveling Fallon who with just a touch more wriggling would surely make Elvis blush. As their relationship deteriorates and The Betrayal looms, their physical proximity and intimacy declines proportionately. Fallon and Kelley have clearly embraced and taken their roles into their hearts, and their souls.
As Act Two commences, darkening days arrive, along with a rapidly accelerating descent toward the inevitable climax. But, the parables and lessons continue, despite temptation, sin and betrayal looming on the horizon. The Woman Caught in Adultery, and the Separation of the Sheep and the Goats come upon the stage, accompanied by the hauntingly lovely “By My Side” and energetically comical “We Beseech Thee” , respectively. I must confess to rather missing the “traditional” Chickabooms and MmmZips that typically underscore the main lyrics, but I will also admit that the rhythmic drum beats and more contemporary lyrics and bits of dialogue that Compton has used in this production perfectly fit the tone established with his deft , clever, and creative direction.
This production includes the song “Beautiful City”, which was written specifically for the film, and not necessarily serving any essential purpose when inserted into live productions. Thankfully, Compton and Fallon have managed to use the number to their advantage, as Fallon delivers the song as a slow, almost languid ballad, allowing the moment to serve as a bridge of transition to the Last Supper scene. Using their individual baggage boxes to “set the table” the disciples collect themselves into the unified group of followers for the last time,and are given the opportunity to ask, one by one “Is it I, Lord?” in response to Jesus’s pronouncement that “One of you will betray me.” Judas answers that question with a question of his own, leading to his abrupt departure and following the meal’s conclusion, highlighted by Jesus’s breaking of bread and sharing of wine, the disciples begin what will be their eventual abandonment of their up to now leader. With the Agony in the Garden consuming Jesus, the disciples fall asleep in their faith and loyalty. The anguish of abandonment, fear, anger, and dread of what is to come vibrates in Fallon’s voice and physical demeanor as he travels the lonely road to Calgary.
The climatic Crucifixion scene and ensuing Finale is particularly affecting, as Fallon’s Jesus wearily, warily,but determinedly ascends to the cross on a literal staircase built from the “baggage” collected from, and carried for, his human disciples. The grey suitcase-like boxes, mounded against the black backdrop,and with Fallon in a white T-shirt with arms outstretched to grasp supporting hooks,creates a strikingly eerie and effective moment, as Fallon’s anguished voice cries out “Oh God, I’m bleeding” as his followers look on, turn their backs, and otherwise react with bewilderment at this unexpected turn of events. The moment builds to a crescendo as bleeding becomes dying, and dying ends in death. The disciples’ mournful cry “Oh, God, you’re dead” covers the theatre like a funeral pall, and fades away into the dark, leaving only the stark
Unlike many traditional production where Jesus is taken down from the cross and carried out of the theatre, Compton has made a different choice.leaving the crucified Christ looming over the concluding proceedings, still, literally “hung up” on the mortal baggage of his disciples, as the show plays out. In a lovely nod to the Biblical tradition which holds that women were both first to witness and to proclaim the Risen Christ, Bella, Cydney, Amber, Kassi and Stephanie begin a slow but building “Litany” that speaks to the hope of resurrection, as they proclaim “Long Live God” with hope, faith and belief pulsing from their throats. Anthony, Matthew and Jake join in counterpoint with “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” and this brilliant, moving, innovative, edgy,pure Trey Compton-style stamped production of Godspell comes to a glorious conclusion.
As has come to be the norm with virtually every Mac-Haydn offering, the technical quality of the production more than holds its own against the performances in every way. Andrew Gmoser and Eoghan Hartley team up to perform superb lighting magic, creating many a moment where the lighting choices are truly the stars of the show, yet the fruitful lights of his labors never detract from the performances taking place on the stage. Gmoser and Hartley’s lighting work is literally brilliant in places it should be, frighteningly Satanic at the appropriate moments, and truly inspired all around. Perhaps nowhere is lighting expertise and out of the box flair more on display as “Light of the World” closes Act One. The lighting conjures up images of a carnival midway at night, with flashing, flourescent neon lights of every color shooting from every possible angle, from glow in the dark patches on the costumes, down to the fingertips of the players. A veritable kaleidoscope of light indeed, and a perfect representation of all the light in the world. Gmoser and Harley make a formidable team, and the production reaps the rewards of their lighting labors.
Angela Carstensen’s costume design is, in a word, inspired. Her costumes reflect the evolution of the cast as in Act One they move from drably dull, grey, black and white dressed nameless bodies, virtually indistinguishable one from another, to become a more cohesive “merry band” of Jesus’s followers with individual pops of color complimenting each other’s look. The more vibrant, almost violent look, accented garish colors and clown-like make-up in Act Two is perfect for the darker, more sinister, and sin-full, action about to unfold. Particularly representative of her attention to even the smallest of details is the way she somehow incorporates a monogram of the traditional Christian symbol of an elongated capital P with an X through the bottom, representing the Greek letters Chi (X) and Rho, and the first 2 letters of the word Christ , into every character’s attire. Appearing either as a headpiece, a scattering of the symbol over a shoulder wrap, or down the legs of jeans, and even with earrings, that simple touch provides a wonderfully vivid and visible sign of the cast’s/disciples’ attachment to Jesus, and the Christian values he is attempting to impart. With the largest of that symbol plastered on the back of Jesus’s denim jacket, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” clearly dictated Carstensen’s design choices, and the effect is “fittingly” perfect costuming.
The scenic design by Tania Barrenechea is clever, practical and simple. Consisting essentially of nothing more than black square walls, with seemingly random hooks scattered on each piece, and several rolling open sided boxes resembling food service carts which alternately serve as platforms, prisons, and storage, the set is an understated complement to the action which unfolds in front of, and eventually upon, it.
Personal love for this show aside, Godspell at the Mac is a truly unique, brilliant, thought-provoking, cutting edge work of theater art. If you’re smart, you’ll surely Learn Your Lessons well, and Prepare Ye to make your way to Chatham for this brilliant, thought-provoking, entrancing production of Godspell. We Beseech Thee…don’t miss it !
Godspell. Book by John Michael Tebelak. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Conceived and originally directed by John Michael Tebelak. Based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Cast: Conor Fallon (Jesus). Andrew Burton Kelley ( John/Judas). As is traditional in most productions, the cast retain their own names as their characters : Amber Mawande-Spytek, Anthony Velez, Bella DePaola, Cydney Gleckner, Jake Koch, Kassi McMillan, Matthew Harper Stevenson, Stephanie Prestage. Directed by Trey Compton. Music Director Eric Shorey. Choreographer Elizabeth McGuire. Assistant Music Director Alessandra Alcala. Scenic Designer Tania Barrenechea. Lighting Design Andrew Gmoser and Eoghan Hartey. Costume Design Angela Carstensen. Sound Design Sean McGinley. Prop Design Adriana Ayala. Hair and Wig Design Emily Allen. Technical Director Cody Kane.
Godspell runs August 3-13, 2023, at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 State Route 203, Chatham, NY 12037. Call 518-392-9292 for tickets. Run time is 2 hours, including 1 intermission. http://www.machaydntheatre.org/