Conceived by John-Michael Tebelak
Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Kenneth Garson
Musical direction by Chris Blissett
Choreography by Jennifer Hamburg
Blunt Theater Company
La Plaza Cultural Community Garden
Review by Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen
It’s generally not a good sign to leave a musical humming the scenery. However, there are exceptions to every rule, and when the audience stepped into the performance area through the branches of a willow tree, and when the al fresco set consisted of a vine-covered walkway behind carefully crafted stone steps in an idyllic garden, then it is no slur on the production to say that the set was one of the prime reasons for the success of this free evening of theatre.
As it happens, the show that took place on the set was perfectly suited to the simple bucolic setting. In Schwartz’s classic musical Godspell, 11 actors retell stories from the Bible, with one playing the role of a contemporary Jesus and the others assuming different roles to enact the parables and teachings to each other through dialogue and song, the feeling being that of a master and his disciples. Kenneth Garson’s pared-down version of the rock musical was given a neighborhood feel assisted by Cheryl McCarron’s bold costumes, with the "disciples" representing local types – only in the East Village could a drag queen (the leggy Tony Foggia) and his dungaree-clad girlfriend (Sandi Micali Smith) make you wonder whether they were part of the audience while mingling before the show. The rest of the cast added to the local color -- two NYC cops (Garson and Sheila Morgan), a harmless homeless man with mental problems (a finely tuned performance by David Rappaport), a streetwise prostitute with few clothes and fewer inhibitions (Sky Spiegel), a shy but eager Jewish boy (Jonathan Toth), a vibrant young woman bursting with enthusiasm and verve (Pamela D. Roberts), the earnest Indian taxi-driver with a wary outlook on life (a sensitive comic performance by Rizwan Mirza), and a yuppie with a cellphone and money fixation (Maggie Graham). With the East Village apartment blocks encircling the garden, this casting lent an authentic air to the show and emphasized the informality of the show’s structure, which falls somewhere between the format of a spontaneous campfire entertainment and that of "let’s put on a show". This immediacy was further emphasized by the use of the actors’ Christian names for their characters and by the updated references to, among other things, September 11.
The most effective departure from the original, however, was the orchestration. Pared down to three musicians (Mary E. Rodriguez on drums, musical director Chris Blissett on electric guitar and Danny Pinto on acoustic guitar), the songs rose spontaneously from the dialogue, allowing human voices to carry both and sidestepping the need for the microphones and amplification that often dehumanize rock musicals. In a show that is so informal and intimate – especially in this neighborhood setting – it was a wise decision to make.
Godspell is very much an ensemble piece, and while some of the staging and delivery was a little clichéd, the actors gelled well, with small but telling moments in the background. Most touching was the developing friendly relations between the mentally disturbed "crazy man" and the friendly, no-nonsense Sandi. who took on a maternal role toward him and whose flute playing mesmerized him with the unforced wonder of a small child. Each performer had his or her moment of glory with a solo or duet; some performers were more actors than singers, but everybody had a voice and there were powerful vocal performances from Pamela D. Roberts and Maggie Graham. Jennifer Hamburg’s choreography, while overall pretty clichéd (lots of outstretched waving arms and basic steps), was performed with conviction, and altogether it was hard to be anything but charmed by the likable and upbeat ensemble.
The lynchpin of the evening, however, was David Rappaport as a hip black Jesus. Blessed with a strong voice, graceful physicality and impressive stage presence, Rappaport brought to the role a strong sense of purpose tempered with a great sense of humor and compassion. The production emphasized Jesus as a democratic leader -- a man of the people blessed with special gifts. Rappaport’s performance echoed this -- a generous member of the ensemble, he rose to the challenge of his own role with the ease and confidence of a natural talent, carrying the weight of the show with a combination of disarming youthful enthusiasm and the panache of a seasoned professional.
The combination of winning performances, a stunning setting and the friendly neighborhood atmosphere combined to make this a memorable and thoroughly enjoyable evening. This season may be over, but watch out for next summer’s offerings from the Blunt Theater Company in their gorgeous outdoor venue.
Music and lyrics: 2