ESSEX — Jacqueline Hubbard, artistic director of The Ivoryton Playhouse and director of “Godspell,” calls the show “a delightful romp.”
Certainly, she emphasizes the musical’s high spirits. The cast is abundantly energetic, and the evening moves at a lively pace. However, the choice to direct almost all the songs and stories for crackling comedy sacrifices the nuances — and there are many — of this unusual and layered piece. Too, since she has staged this “Godspell” to be consistently presentational — nearly every moment is played to the audience — the production loses much of the sweet intimacy between Jesus and his disciples.
“Godspell” was conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Loosely based on the Gospel of St. Matthew, the production dramatizes the parables and takes us through the story of Jesus’ teachings, betrayal, and death, and the birth of Christianity, with songs ranging from funny (“All for the Best”), satirical (“Turn Back, O Man”), poignant (“Day by Day” and “All Good Gifts”), and heart-rending (“By My Side,” “On the Willows”). All are beautifully tuneful, which is a large part of “Godspell’s” appeal.
Part of its appeal, too, is its timeless story. Audiences know that, no matter how rambunctious or hilarious parts of “Godspell” may be early on, the narrative arc must take us on a tragic journey before the hopeful coda. For this reason, quiet and serious moments are key to drawing us into the action. Key, also, is the casting. Each of Jesus’ disciples must have a specific and endearing personality that we discover as the evening moves on. Especially important, of course, are the actors playing Jesus and Judas.
As Judas, Carson Higgins (previously seen at Ivoryton in “Memphis The Musical” and “Little Shop of Horrors”) gives one of the production’s most complex and intense performances, and whenever he is spotlighted — whether comically or darkly — we sense the depth of “Godspell” and remember how, inevitably, Jesus’ life on earth must end.
Unfortunately, Sam Sherwood — so fine as The Guy in “Once” and in “The Road: My Life with John Denver” — doesn’t convey the same complexity in his role as Jesus. Here, his “The boy-most-likely-to-succeed” good looks distract from the character’s inner light and gifts as a tender, loving and inventive teacher. Too, Sherwood hasn’t been guided to convey Jesus’ mysterious mix of humility and charisma, lightly worn wisdom, and especially the painful flashes of vulnerability that forecast his fate.
To her great credit, though, director Hubbard doesn’t back away from the very dark and disturbing end of Jesus’ life on earth. In this section of the piece, she has made certain that Sherwood captures the fear, mental anguish and physical agony of his torment. Her staging, difficult to watch in its intensity, demonstrates the skill and deep investment she, her cast, and her designers bring to the story’s arc.
Also, Hubbard’s work with many of the other actors yields some terrific performances. Jerica Exum, who gives us a gorgeous “Bless the Lord,” is unfailingly funny, touching and fully present at every moment. Morgan Morse is a fine musician and his “Light of the World” is a high point. And Josh Walker nearly steals the show with his charm, his intelligence, and his glorious reprise, on piano, of “Learn Your Lessons Well.”
The set, designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, is puzzling: we seem to be in a blown-out warehouse, or an alley, in tones of brown and black, with boarded-up doorways, and wooden boxes and scraps of drab fabric strewn about. Is this to emphasize Jesus’ exhortations to serve God rather than money or material things? It’s hard to say.
Cully Long’s costumes help to give each character their unique personalities, and the addition of colorful scarves not only helps create the parables simply, but also brings to the stage a welcome wash of color. Marcus Abbott’s lighting is consistently effective, and Todd Underwood’s choreography, though a bit muddy at times, conveys the vivacity that director Hubbard clearly wants to emphasize.
For those who want to see a “Godspell” that gives equal weight to the joy, the depth, and the sorrow of this story, Ivoryton’s production may not be the ideal choice. However, the evening will please those seeking fast-paced humor, energy and zest.