Godspell is an inspired opener for Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's season. It is the most joyously energetic and reverent production of this show I've yet seen.
Since it first appeared in 1971, John-Michael Tebelak's show with music by Stephen Schwartz has offered freedom and flexibility of interpretation for directors and actors.
ASGT Director/choreographer Doug Kotula sets the action in a contemporary New York City subway car adorned with graffiti proclaiming Jesus as Savior.
"It made sense that Jesus could appear in such a familiar subway setting among stereotypical New Yorkers," said Kotula, a former New York University student.
The wheel sounds and occasional flashes of light behind the darkened car windows indicate the swift passage of time and space.
Tebelak died in 1985 of a heart attack. He was 35. Tebelak wrote Godspell to counteract what he thought was a joyless depiction of Scriptures. Although sometimes criticized as cartoon-like in retelling the parables, Tebelak's design and improvisational style retains freshness.
Summer Garden's production has a fun and youthful exuberance that provides lively entertainment appropriate for families and church youth groups.
Pearl Sherman, a friend who attended Saturday's performance with her family, said her daughter and two teenage grandchildren "thought the show was wonderful," and noticed that "everybody was smiling."
My minor complaints start with the annoying feedback in the sound system during Act I on the night I attended. I was also unable to distinguish some of the lyrics clearly as well as some of the dialogue. Some numbers lacked sizzle, especially "Turn Back, O Man" that opened Act II.
Kotula's choreography provided a fun trip back to 1970s dances.
In the role of Jesus, Paul Massaro, 15, has enormous stage presence, great charisma and strong acting skills to bring sincerity and clarity to the parables.
The Severna Park High sophomore also sings and dances better than most adults I've seen in past Godspell productions.
Commendable as it was to hear the prayers over the Eucharist recited in Hebrew, Massaro would be well advised to continue practicing his Hebrew recitation skills.
Another strong actor/singer is R.J. Pavel, a sophomore at Archbishop Spalding High who plays the dual roles of John the Baptist and Judas. Pavel was effective as John the Baptist in "Prepare Ye, the Way of the Lord" and properly edgy in his duet and soft-shoe with Massaro's Jesus in "All for the Best."
Rikki Gimelstob displays a fine soprano voice that adds luster to each of her numbers, particularly "All Good Gifts" and in the duet "By My Side."
Also compelling in that duet is Alicia Osborn, who sings beautifully and is a skilled enough actress to play a hooker convincingly. Osborn delivers such a stunning "Bless the Lord" that it is hard to believe she's a high school sophomore.
Experienced ASGT professional Shannon Benil does justice to the show's major hit tune, "Day by Day," as does ASGT regular Ben Dillard with his fine singing.
The entire cast deserves praise, which should extend to the three musicians --Ken Kimble, Ahem Bucheister and Bob Smith.
Sometimes Godspell productions disintegrate in Act II, unable to deliver an effective crucifixion scene. This production however, boasts an inspired "On the Willows" as each company member says farewell to Jesus and rises to new reverential heights.
This Godspell is not only a great way to start the summer season. It's also a way to rekindle one's own Christian faith.
Godspell runs Thursdays through Sundays through June 23. For reservations, call 410-268-9212.