Olney Theater’s plan for their new rendition of Godspell, which opened this past weekend, was simple but effective: gather some of DC’s best powerhouse vocal performers and pour them all into the ensemble of a musical known for being packed start to finish with songs. For the most part, Godspell delivers on its promise of crowd-pleasing, roof-raising songs. But the raw material of Godspell as a musical puts a ceiling on what these hard-working actors can accomplish, though they (and the creative team) put some contemporary spins on the text to fill it out.
Calling Godspell a musical is generous to the point of inaccuracy. A musical is supposed to be a play with a plot highlighted by song, where scenes are set and characters are developed by the emotional heights of music that expresses what words cannot say. Godspell is more of a revue, with toe-tapping songs that sandwich meaty traditional parables, but it lacks much of a plot, or well-developed characters, or a really cohesive setting (which is grounded in the hippie Jesus Movement, reflected by Paige A. Hathaway’s elegantly rough desert set). But, if you go in expecting a revue, ready to relax and enjoy the ride, you should be quite happy with Olney’s Godspell.
The play is ostensibly an adaptation of the biblical book of Matthew (though, for the religiously-minded reader, its structure is more Mark with a dollop of Matthew), so we follow Jesus from his baptism by John to his trial to his betrayal by Judas and (1982-year-old SPOILER ALERT) his death. That’s the whole of the plot, which has some appeal to it, since the play doesn’t get bogged down in religious nit-pickery. The rest of the book is full of Jesus’ famous parables, which generally instruct both Jews and Gentiles to not be jerks to each other. Only one miracle makes it (besides the, again with the 1982-year-old SPOILER ALERT, resurrection), which is Jesus’ water-into-wine conversion, though that only gets a brief moment in the spotlight. Jesus’ role in this play is as a storyteller, more of a smile-inducing inspirer than stern-gazed messiah, which fits lead actor Jordan Coughtry just fine.
Coughtry can’t help but play to the crowd with his Jesus, amping up some lanky dance moves in the first act, especially in choreographed musical transitions but also in his duet “All for the Best.” He has nice vocal range, showing off great musical theater chops with big numbers “Save the People” and “Beautiful City” but also finding a soft touch in the folk-inspired “Alas for You.” His range extends to his acting, not only charmingly embodying the happy smiling Jesus, but also rage against religious authority and a “I’m not mad, just disappointed” vibe when his disciples fail him.
Coughtry has a nice foil in John/Judas, the only other named roles in Godspell, both played by sharp local talent Rachel Zampelli. Zampelli lends much-needed dynamism to the play, often supplementing the action with side conflicts with ensemble members and showing strong change as John from announcing predecessor to humble worshipper. She gets some rocking numbers, and her energy really jumpstarts the play with “Prepare Ye” after the ensemble’s worryingly cacophonous “Prologue.” But what Zampelli really does with her roles in this show is prove herself as one of DC’s leading female singing actors, who can take a molehill of text and make it into a mountain of performance.
That isn’t to say that the ensemble doesn’t have some powerful singers in the mix. Nova Y. Payton, stalwart at Signature Theater and instantly recognizable as one of DC’s top-end sopranos, gets some belting highlights, and Maggie Donnelly impressed me with her voice in “Learn Your Lessons Well.” Michael J. Mainwaring closes the first act and opens the second with “Light of the World,” a pop number that marks the high point of the evening and shows off his true skill at working an audience. Busy local Christopher Mueller, who gets better every time I see him, blisters the stage with his energy in “O, Bless the Lord, My Soul.”
Closes March 15
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $38 – $75
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 301.924.3400
Putting all of these great soloists in the ensemble, however, may have come at a price. The most frequent dissonance in the play came from problems with blending and harmonization when these strong soloists needed to put on their ensemble caps and listen to each other more. Music Director Chris Youstra and Director Jason King Jones fill out the play with amusing and enjoyable contemporary song “quotations” (like a cute Law & Order theme song riff or a comparison of hell and repeat listening to “Let It Go”). Their additions moved the show forward and helped keep it from getting too preachy, but they may have needed to focus on cast cohesiveness than supplementing Godspell’s admittedly bare-bones script. Some of those rocky harmonizations may clear up as the cast performs together, and I hope they do.
Once you look past these harmony issues (and they are somewhat minor), Olney’s Godspell is a fine revue of religious songs and parables with a secular swing. Very much like a candy bunny consumed at the main character’s April holiday, Godspell is a sweet, spectacular chocolate outer shell with a hollow center. But the fact that this show doesn’t run deep shouldn’t stop you from enjoying it, as long as you don’t expect too much filling. After all, don’t we all eat and love the chocolate bunny anyway?
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