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Breaking musical's spell


"Godspell" always has been comfortably middle-class, but the newest incarnation of the 1971 musical intensifies that quality to an alarming degree.

In the current touring production, Jesus is costumed in impeccable white, and his sleeveless vest shows off well-defined biceps and triceps. Clearly, J.C. works out at the gym, and just as clearly, his ensemble never came anywhere near a stable.

The original production made at least a bow to the historic poverty of the original Christians by being located in a junkyard. In this staging, the musical numbers take place before a floor-to-ceiling mound of television sets. A video camera films the action, and projects it on the monitors. So it's fitting that Judas Iscariot doesn't betray Jesus with anything as anguished and ambiguous as a kiss. Instead, he literally pulls the plug on his ministry; there's a loud electronic squeal, a flash of lights and the screens go blank.

Apparently, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker had it right after all - Jesus was a televangelist.

Somehow, I don't think that's what John-Michael Tebelak had in mind when he decided to base "Godspell" on the Gospel according to Matthew as his master's thesis project at Carnegie-Mellon University. He fashioned the first act from a loose collection of parables, while the second act depicts Christ's final days. Then and now, the juxtaposition is jarring and makes "Godspell" difficult to stage; the crucifixion has a gravity and dramatic thrust that the first act lacks. You can't really play it for laughs.

And yet the musical had an undeniable charm, thanks largely to Stephen Schwartz's folk-inspired score, which is so hummable that, two decades after having last seen the show, I easily could recall most of the melodies and lyrics.

"Godspell" requires top-notch singers, and this production has them, although they seem to have been cast more for the loveliness and power of their voices than for their ability to articulate. (The lyrics in "Tower of Babble" and, unforgivably, in "All for the Best," were muffled during Tuesday's performance.) But almost every singer had a moment of sheer passion or beauty that showed how affecting "Godspell" can be.

The cleverest number is the show-stopping patter song, "All for the Best," while the most haunting is "Side by Side" (written not by Schwartz, but by Jay Hamburger and Peggy Gordon). The musical's most famous song is "Day by Day," and Sharon Francis' voice has enough warmth and power to, well, raise the dead. On Tuesday, she found herself singing behind the band. It wasn't enough to ruin the audience's pleasure in her rendition, but it's distracting nonetheless.

The songs work best when the music is simply orchestrated, and their poignancy and purity can emerge. In the current incarnation, those qualities are buried by over-amplified sound produced by a five-member, onstage rock band. "Alas For You" is supposed to be a vehement outcry against the forces of complacency and hypocrisy. But the band was so loud, it drowned out Jesus' (Joseph Carney's) fine baritone.

The excesses of the arrangements were carried over into the rest of the staging. With its depiction of the apostles as childlike innocents who clown their way through the parables, any production of "Godspell" is in danger of being insufferably cute.

Inexplicably, director Scott Schwartz (the composer's son) chose to heighten the schtick, not tone it down. To make the parables relevant, he loaded the script with pop culture references, from Microsoft to Bill Clinton to "The Blair Witch Project." To keep the audience's attention, he added flashing lights, a fright wig and wacky props, such as hand puppets. But the parables are encrusted with so much goo that nothing can pierce their surface, certainly not the humble little lessons they seek to teach.

Come to think of it, one of the most famous parables of all is absent from this yuppified version of the show - the one about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.

Now, why might that be?


Where: The Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $36-$46

Call: 410-481-7328

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