Come sing about love! And build a better city, not a city of angels but a city of man. The message is clear and in this particular moment in time it couldn’t be more relevant than what’s rolling out to the audience from Silhouette Stage’s production of Godspell. Directed by Stephen M. Deininger, with Musical Direction by Robin Trenner, this reimagined take on Stephen Schwartz’ music and John-Michael Tebelak’s original conception is exactly what the world needs in this time of destruction and man-wrought chaos. Distilling the intrinsic religious element from the show and making the lessons of the parables universally relatable to modern humanity, this brilliant new approach is layered with symbolism that plays through our everyday lives.
Aiding and assisting the modern teachings and lessons of the Godspell story is a trio of illuminators whose work in this production bring a modernized rocker feel to the performance. Lighting Designer Samuel Andrews, working with Moving Light Programmer Ethan Knister and Projection Designer Stuart Kazanow, effectively bring a rock concert atmosphere to the show. The constant influx of strobing lights and blinking lights pump energy into the performers and the audience alike; creating a visual sensory overload at times, which highlights that intense feeling of partying one often experiences at an outdoor concert. The constant swirl of motion in the lights, compliments of Knister’s design work, makes for an intriguing aesthetic, particularly when the more subdued spins of gobos overtake a somber song like “By My Side.” Kazanow’s assistance to Director Stephen M. Deininger’s projected visions levels in the modern playing field with live footage of current events from around the world; bringing the layers of Deininger’s concepts to visual fruition.
Godspell is not a show that is often noted for its choreography simply because there are very few places wherein one can slide large-scale “Broadway-style” dance routines as many of the songs are solos or take on a less than celebratory tone. Choreographer Katie Sheldon defies this standard and infuses solid dance routines every chance she gets. Reminiscent of the Electric Slide and other dance routines that followed that basic shuffling, gliding, and spinning footwork, “Day by Day” and “We Beseech Thee” are packed full of energetic movement that really encourages the enthusiasm across the ensemble as they sing and dance along to the music.
Director Stephen M. Deininger has a great many concepts that are nearly impossible to discuss without giving away the resplendence that is his end result. But know this, the concept is laid out full circle and the striking beginning moment of footage with Jesus in the aisles looking up is well met by the end of the show; a perfect non-traditional ending that speaks volumes about the world and its current state, shifting the focus of the show from is traditionally perceived of it to a theme that falls more along the lines of the message of “Beautiful City.” Deininger portrays the ‘disciples’ as children; an accurate metaphor as the Jesus character attempts to guide them through the lessons they need to know. This is done in perfect balance with the overzealous hyper activity of the other ensemble members juxtaposing brilliantly against the mild-mannered, though occasionally annoyed, Jesus portrayal. With this notion in mind, the end of the performance is sheer perfection as lessons are learned. To more wholly understand the awe-inspiring concept that Deininger is working with, one must simply see the musical.
Every voice in this show is the epitome of an engaged performer, with every individual putting themselves into the role deep enough to make it read on a fully personal level to the audience. Mary Guay Kramer takes on the solo “Turn Back O Man” and brings her robust personality to the audience. Sashaying and sauntering through the house to light up the temptation of the number, Kramer knows how to work her audience and interact with them on a level that is crucial for the messages of this show to translate fully. Thomas Ogar, who is featured as a starting soloist at the top of “Light of the World” brings a strong sense of presence to his performance throughout the show as well. These two performers are prime examples of how every member of the company has transformed the show into something deeply and motivationally personal.
Kory Twit for all intents and purposes is the glaring example of melodramatic enthusiasm; truly grounded in the mindset of the eager child wanting to please Jesus in this show. For all of his spastic and spontaneous outbursts, many of which result in great bouts of laughter, Twit offers something deeper and more grounded during his featured solo “All Good Gifts” and later as harmony in “On the Willows.” With a pure and easy voice, Twit alights “All Good Gifts” into something truly beautiful and he provides indescribable emotions to partner Matt Wetzel’s leading sound in “On the Willows.”
Wetzel, whose reputation as comic cad precedes him by a biblical mile, delivers a strikingly serious performance for his rendition of “On the Willows.” His sound is heartrending and the emotional attachment is moving. That said, Wetzel does not disappoint as the hysterical clown leaping and bounding and carrying the hilarity of the show— even through the lulls in Act II— with his physical comedy, vivid facial expressions, and overall indefatigable energy. “We Beseech Thee” is essentially an exercise in just how long Wetzel can stay wound like the energizer bunny; infectiously inspiring the other ensemble members to keep pace with him in this blast of renewed spirit for the second half of the show.
There is a flood of vocal intensity coming from the women in this production. Samantha McEwen, Adeline K. Sutter, Taylor Washington, and Clare Kneebone bring the musical thunder and do not apologize for their sensational sound, vivacious attitudes, and astounding emotional connections to their songs. Washington and Kneebone blend their voices for “By My Side”, supported by the company. Kneebone crafts a haunted sound of wounded beauty, pouring her soul into the song while Washington adds dulcet harmonies to the number. In addition to being the vocal harmonizer for this and “Light of the World,” Taylor thrusts a world of attitude into her solo “Learn Your Lessons Well” paying homage to Tina Turner as she burns up the stage in this number.
Sutter, who is given the most iconic song of the piece, leads the ensemble through “Day by Day” with a powerful will and equally supported vocals. Creating a cabaret quality to her singing sound, Sutter delivers a surprisingly pumped connection to the song that can otherwise drag along at a much more meandering tempo. McEwen, who serves as the first female soloist voice in the opening, is given a chance to prove her vocal prowess in “Bless the Lord by Soul.” With a jazzy and soulful infusion to the song, McEwen belts and wails out at the top of her range, showing the world what her voice is all about in the name of praise.
It is difficult playing named characters in a show where everyone else is their own individual selves, but Richard Greenslit, as John the Baptist/Judas, and Andrew Worthington, as Jesus, nail this challenge with absolute ease. Greenslit’s voice is exactly the sort of voice designed for this role and when he heralds his way onto the scene— with no frills or flash just his voice and a trumpet— “Prepare Ye” becomes an honest welcoming song rather than a number comprised of spectacle. As it is the only song that features the full swells of sound from Greenslit’s vocal abilities, it is remarkable that his voice carries so pristinely clear from the back of the house straight up to the stage.
Greenslit and Worthington share the most hilarious and the most tragic moment in the show. The former of the two comes in the form of an old vaudeville/Broadway dance-off featured during “All for the Best.” Greenslit provides the folksy-hokey sound with a song and dance to match while Worthington steps up to the plate with the razzle-dazzle of vaudeville. The pair go at it almost in competition between their pattering and their round-verses in this number making for a hilarious routine. The brief exchange shared later in act two between the pair is of a completely different vibe, and is one of the most harrowing moments in the performance.
Worthington is a modern day Jesus. Foregoing the long flowing locks and sandals, his gruff appearance speaks volumes to Deininger’s intent for the show. His vocals are rough hewn like his appearance, but in a glorious Cat Stevens or Bob Dylan fashion blended with John Mayer undertones, which make numbers like “Beautiful City” sound startlingly amazing. “Alas For You” has an intense anger that infiltrates the otherwise calm voice that Worthington provides, and the sustains held here are the stuff of gospel legend. A wondrous performance given for a heavenly role, Worthington embodies the modern Jesus and lives him fully in this show with panache and truth.
Prepare ye the way to Silhouette Stages so that you don’t miss an astonishing message that is truly phenomenal, particularly given the current topical relevancy behind it. Not a show that you want to miss, and a sublime way to close their 2014/2015 season.
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Godspell plays through May 24, 2015 at Silhouette Stages at Slayton House Theatre in Wilde Lake Village Center— 10400 Cross Fox Lane in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 637-5289, or purchase them online.