By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
There are many shows out there that are community and small theatre staples and Godspell, based on the Gospel of Saint Matthew with Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and Book by John-Michael Tabelak is certainly one of them. It had its off-Broadway debut in 1971 and multiple revivals including the most recent Broadway incarnation in 2011 as well as various professional touring and international productions going strong today. With Broadway standards like “Day by Day” and “On the Willows,” Godspell has the potential to pack playhouses all across the land.
On any given weekend, a production of Godspell is popping up in small theatres in little hamlets and larger theatres in in bigger cities all across this great nation of ours and lucky for us, we have our own local production at Cockpit in Court, directed and choreographed by Baltimore theatre veteran James Hunnicutt with music direction by Nathan Scavilla and co-choreography by Danielle Sten-Guillermo.
The first impression of this production is a pleasant one. As I entered the theatre, I was greeted by a very simple, but artistic set design by Jason Randolph that perfectly fit this show. Reminiscent of a black-box theatre, there are no bells and whistles with this set and it’s brilliant with its two staircases ascending to a second story platform that sits over the main entrance and exit to the stage though sliding doors. One highlight of the set was the recreation of “The Voice” spinning chair that also added an updated flair to the production. Lighting Design by Helen Garcia-Alton was subdued but appropriate though, at times, a little dark, but good, overall.
Rounding out the technical aspect of the production was Sound Design by Jacob Urtes and though it was minimal with no major sound effects it was adequate but had its challenges as there were many times throughout the show I could barely hear what the actors were saying and/or singing and the pit band was too loud and at other times the pit band was too soft. Hopefully, the balance between the band and the actors will be rectified before the end of the run. Also, this production utilized projections (as many productions are utilizing these days) but, I felt the projection choices were at two different ends of the spectrum and either didn’t add anything to the show or were taking attention away from the live action on the stage. I also noticed the projections were few and far in between and, frankly, could have been cut altogether.
Now, onto the performance aspect. I’d like to make it clear that, though this production had its difficulties, it was a very good show, overall. Godspell is a perfect show for small and community theatres and is a fan favorite. Hunnicutt, a revered director in Baltimore community theatre, has done a fine job bringing this production to the stage and all involved should be commended for their efforts.
Godspell is a show that can be very flexible when it comes to a theme and a director can be as creative or traditional as he or she sees fit and though Hunnicutt’s vision seemed fun and upbeat, it was hard for me to see a cohesive vision. I can’t blame Hunnicutt alone as the script is 40+ years old and a lot on the hokey side, which makes the entire picture seem jumbled. The attempts to update and modernize the piece, whether scripted or ad-libbed, seemed thrown in and out of place but there are a few good zingers that managed a laugh from the rather subdued audience but I like my comedy with a bit more edge and reaching for the line of offensive and that’s almost impossible with Godspell.
Another curious choice made by Hunnicutt was to break the 4th wall and have the characters recite the parables of the Gospel of Saint Matthew to the audience instead of to each other. The book for Godspell is already a bit preachy for my tastes and this aspect of the performance just drove that home for me. At times, I felt I was in the congregation of a church listening to a homily rather than in an audience of a show, however, the actors did a great job presenting those parables.
A large part of any successful musical is its choreography and Hunnicutt and Sten-Guillermo give us very entertaining, upbeat numbers. In an effort to update the piece, I saw hints of hip-hop elements but, either because some of the numbers were a little disheveled or the hip-hop elements were very subtle, it was hard to be certain. The dancing was definitely appropriate and thought-out, but the styles seemed to be all over the place and seemed as though the cast would have benefited from a few more dance rehearsals.
One point I must make is that I could definitely tell the small cast gave 100% every step of the way. Even though the pacing seemed to trudge along at times and energy seemed down, that could have had something to do with the unbalanced sound or the script itself. Either way, this very talented cast was totally into what they were presenting. That having been said, with the religious theme of this musical, it seemed the cast was simply reading the script and going through the motions rather than understanding what the text meant. Some of the book seemed to be glazed over just to move the action forward but, I think, if more time had been taken comprehending the text, it would have added a bit more to the performances. I’d like to get this cast together to hang out outside of this production so they can get to know each other a little more because one of the challenges for this cast is that the chemistry between these folks seemed strained. Sure, they were comfortable hugging and patting each other on the back and whatnot, but there was a deeper connection that seemed to be missing but they still put on very good performances.
The opening number, “Tower of Babble,” was a bit lackluster but I could tell from the get that this cast was chock full of AMAZING voices! There were harmony issues, but, individually, this cast is top notch when it comes to singing! This ensemble piece is led by Ryan Slattery as Jesus and Jake Zeranko as John the Baptist/Judas. Zeranko makes his entrance from the back of the auditorium with the traditional conch shell and he gives a very nice rendition of “Prepare Ye” with a very nice voice that I found myself wishing were a little louder at times. Though he was having mic problems, I would liked to have had him project a little more than he was. Zeranko also has the honor of performing one of the prettiest songs in musical theatre, “On the Willows” along a female duo and though he does a fantastic job, I was hoping for a little more emotion as the song is supposed to be happening during the final hours before Jesus’ arrest. He does have a good stage presence, but seems a bit stiff throughout but still gives a very admirable performance.
Slattery, as Jesus, has an absolutely beautiful voice and it is a perfect fit for the role with his gentle and soft manner. He has some very good moments with the cast and the audience, namely “Beautiful City” which is a simple, moving arrangement of just vocals and piano. He was one of the actors who seemed to understand the text and presented it nicely and clearly. “Alas for You” a very emotional, intense song is a highlight for the character of Jesus but Slattery seems to have chosen a more subtle take on the number, losing some of intensity of the song. Though it is an ensemble piece, I would have liked him, as Jesus, to have had a bit more charisma and energy instead of blending in completely with the rest of the cast, but, still, he gives a brilliant performance.
The duo of Slattery and Zeranko gives us “All for the Best” one of the better known songs in Godspell but since the chemsitry was nil to none between the two actors, the number, though entertaining and fun, it kind of fell flat, but the ensemble seemed to have fun with the stylistic number.
Comprising the women’s ensemble are Alyssa Bell, Nicole Smith, Allie McLoughlin, Anna Steuerman, Samantha Ross, and Erin Sullivan and everyone one of these ladies is a power house!
Alyssa Bell does a brilliant job with “Bless the Lord” with her well placed trills and ornamentation showing off her vocal skills, but, whether a sound issue or otherwise, I would have loved for her to have a stronger belt.
Nicole Smith gives a flawless performance, even playing the ukelele in the beginning of her number, “Learn Your Lessons Well.” She has a great belt and wonderful stage presence as she moves comfortably about the stage.
Allie McLoughlin give a very sweet vocal rendition of the uber-famous and well known “Day By Day” but, for all that is good and holy, someone needs to come up with another presentation than the traditional (overused) sign-language rendition. Thankfully, this did not take away from McLoughlin’s talent.
Anna Steuerman give us a haunting rendition of “By My Side” with a very unique, trained voice that sounds like it would totally rock an opera or classical aria and reminds me of someone like Audra McDonald who brings that classical, trained sound to Broadway musicals.
Samantha Ross is indeed a standout in this ensemble with her fun, sexy version of “Turn Back O Man”. She has a beautiful voice and is very confident on stage. She moved beautifully and was one of the actors who kept my attention throughout her entire number. She’s certainly one to watch!
Erin Sullivan gives us “Light of the World”, ending Act I and her rendition is absolutely delightful. She’s got some strong pipes and is comfortable moving around on the stage and has a great presence.
Rounding out the cast is the male ensemble made up of Kevin James Logan and Josh Schoff. These gentlemen, in a sea of ladies, do a fantastic job of holding their own with two of my favorite numbers in Godspell. Logan gives us “All Good Gifts” a soft but soulful song toward the end of Act I. Logan does a great job with this song giving it a good amount of ornamentation and feeling but, I’ve always thought this song was more than just about hitting the notes. Logan hits all the notes in this song flawlessly but falls just short of the feeling this song needs to be 100% successful. Now, I’m not saying he did a bad job because he most certainly did not! He performed this challenging song quite successfully and it was pleasant to watch and listen to him do this thing!
Schoff gives us a very fun rendition of the upbeat 11:00 number, “We Beseech Thee,” which is another one of my favorite songs from this show, and he pulls it off nicely and the cast seems to have a great time with the number as well, though the choreography could be cleaned up just a tad. Overall, Schoff gives a very good performance.
So, even with all its challenges, Cockpit in Court’s Godspell is certainly a very good show and is comprised of a very talented, committed cast giving all they’ve got to this production. It’s a classic musical with familiar tunes and a good message so if you’ve got an hour or two this weekend, go check it out!
This is what I thought of this production of Godspell… what do you think?
Godspell will play Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through June 26th at CCBC, Essex Campus, Community Center. For tickets, call 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.