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Hippie-era 'Godspell' at Silhouette Stages links then and now

The "Godspell" cast at Silhouette Stages hits the finale of "We Beseech Thee" with Jesus (Andrew Worthington) holding his arm in the air.
The "Godspell" cast at Silhouette Stages hits the finale of "We Beseech Thee" with Jesus (Andrew Worthington) holding his arm in the air.(Submitted photo)

"Godspell" is a hippie-era musical from 1971 that has an eternal message. That's not surprising when you consider that its script is based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew.

The current Silhouette Stages production makes sure you make the connection between the biblical stories and today. Although that proves to be a mixed blessing in this particular staging, it's a lively show with perpetually catchy tunes and spiritual messages that remain relevant.

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Stephen M. Deininger, who directed the Silhouette Stages production, ensures that you get the thematic links between then and now. From its opening moments until its conclusion, this "Godspell" makes extensive use of still photographs and videos projected on a screen at the back of the stage.

Sometimes these connections are quite literal-minded, as when a narrated story about Noah is accompanied by flood-related images; and sometimes they are more ideological, as when strife-related biblical parables are accompanied by images of conflict as recent as the riots in Baltimore.

Linking composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz's pop songs, his tightly edited biblical parables and the countercultural ensemble-oriented stage action in "Godspell" with this sort of visual and aural reinforcement on a screen is a conceptually neat idea that does not entirely work in terms of the stagecraft here.

One concern is that the need to keep the images on screen in sharp focus necessitates keeping the live action rather dimly lit in many scenes. Although there are some very effective scenes in which silhouetted or spotlit figures are dramatically singled out in the semi-darkness, there are other scenes in which there is no strategic advantage in having actors recite their lines in near-darkness.

A second concern is that the video projection needs to be more consistent in a technical sense. As is, the timing is occasionally off in terms of bringing the sound up when civil conflict-related video footage goes on screen.

A third concern is that there are some awkward moments when the performers do not seem certain as to whether their characters should overtly acknowledge the images flashing behind them. Should they nod toward the screen or simply face the audience and sing a hippie-tinged ballad?

The staging otherwise makes astute use of simple platforms and pieces of wood that can be moved about as needed. As in another hip religious musical from that now-distant era, "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Godspell" largely relies on choreographic ingenuity to conjure up its setting.

What immediately emerges as the most effective aspect of the Silhouette staging is the on-stage placement of a really good band under the musical direction of Robin Trenner. This perky band instantly brings to life songs that were imprinted decades ago in the memories of some audience members.

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Likewise, the band helps spark the festive choreography by Katie Sheldon. The performers are arranged in ever-changing configurations on stage, and on multiple occasions they come down off the stage and roam the aisles of Slayton House Theater. If the gospel-inflected story reaches you, it doesn't hurt that it's just a few feet away.

As for the essence of that story, it goes without saying that the star of this show is Jesus. It's a potentially daunting role for any actor to assume, but "Godspell" makes it easier by dispensing with the biblical robes and letting Jesus wear jeans.

Andrew Worthington slips into the role of Jesus with amiable ease. In, er, theological terms, he makes Jesus a nice guy who takes his divinity in stride. Worthington has a sweetly inflected singing voice in songs including "Save the People," even though he's slightly raspy throughout the show. It's generally a winning performance that makes you happy to follow him.

Other vocal highlights include Samantha McEwen's soulful take on "Bless the Lord" and Matt Wetzel's energetic song-and-dance moves in "We Beseech Thee." And the enthusiastic ensemble really gets into numbers including "Day byDay," "All for the Best" and "Light of the World."

The other cast members are Richard Greenslit, Mary Guay Kramer, Adeline K. Sutter, Taylor Washington, Clare Kneebone, Kory Twit and Thomas Ogar. They prepare the way for the uplifting evening.

"Godspell" runs through May 24 at Slayton House Theater, 10400 Cross Fox Lane in the Wilde Lake Village Center in Columbia. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20; $17 for seniors, military and full-time students; $10 for children 10 and under. Call 410-637-5289 or go to http://www.SilhouetteStages.com.

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