It is incredible that no one’s thought of pairing Godspell with the structure of “Saturday Night Live” before. I am sure I have just turned off a purist or two who might think such a combination is either blasphemous or just too darned wacky. But stay tuned, and I will tell you why it’s not.
The musical, the very loose retelling of Jesus and his disciples from St. Matthew’s Gospel, has always been a melding of improvisational-style story theatre and catchy tunes. Originating with a concept by John-Michael Tebelak which grew into the popular musical with the addition of music and lyrics by early 1970s wunderkind Stephen Schwartz, who also incorporated a great deal of the common liturgy into the libretto. Godspell became a relative sensation when it moved from Off-Broadway to the Great White Way. Jesus shared his wisdom, his posse acted out parables, and shared a brief but emotional journey as they found themselves as Jesus’ followers. And who among you doesn’t know “Day by Day,” one of the show’s stand out songs?
Flip the dial a few years and your television might land on a scrappy sketch comedy show NBC premiered live from Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, October 11, 1975. George Carlin was the first host, and the cast have nearly all become comedy legends: John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, et al. Running a remarkable (and sometimes rocky) 42 seasons, “Saturday Night Live” may have changed casts, and evolved with the times, but the basic outline has remained the same – after a topical cold opening and the famous “live from New York” exclamation, a mixture of satirical sketches, musical numbers and many memorable characters perform live for the studio audience. (More about some of those memorable characters in just a minute.)
Director Alan Ostroff, co-artistic director of Annapolis’ Infinity Theatre Company with his wife Anna Roberts Ostroff, landed on what I believe to be a brilliant concept, melding Godspell with the structure of “SNL.” The Infinity stage has been transformed into a working TV studio by scenic designer Quinn Stone, capturing the frenetic nature of the ever-changing sets, and even putting the band center stage with a doorway for the host’s big entrance.
The illusion of a live television show is also bolstered by ensemble member Brooke Bloomquist as the camera operator and the presence of a director/showrunner, always stationed at stage right, overseeing the bulletin board outline of the current show. A red applause sign clues in the studio audience when to react accordingly.
Ostroff moves his Godspell through all the sections of a typical edition of “SNL,” starting with the cold open in which the ensemble delivers the “Tower of Babble” section in which ideas of various secular philosophers are shared, higglety-pigglety. The chaotic verbiage is calmed down by showrunner Andy Baldwin in the John the Baptist role who implores his actors to “Prepare Ye.”
The first section of this Godspell parallels the Saturday afternoon dress rehearsal of the famous sketch comedy show, in which they run everything and decide what will make it to the live airing. Special guest host Jesus enters through central door and delivers his opening monologue, which happens to be his first lesson. As he should be, Ostroff’s Jesus is a stand-out. Kyle Hines, a tall, strapping bearded actor with a strong, clear voice, provides the calm, warm central performance Godspell requires. Charming, subtly comic, and versatile, Hines reminded me of an ideal pastor, the one called to bring new life into a church, with just a hint of being a hipster dreamboat. His angered plea “Alas for You” and his performance of the empowering anthem “Beautiful City” are among the best I have seen.
Baldwin’s John the Baptist and Hines’ Jesus have a strong relationship that is shown through their interactions, mostly off-camera. As Jesus increases his proselytizing, John begins to challenge the teacher, at first playfully, as they break into the mock vaudevillian turn, “All for the Best,” performed with chutzpah and breeziness. But by the end of act one, John the Baptist has had enough (or is let go for not controlling guest star Jesus – this was a fuzzy point) and he packs up his desk and storms off. The stakes are raised for the big confrontation in act two with the sterner and all business replacement showrunner, Judas, also played by Andy Baldwin.
closes July 30, 2017
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The ongoing conflict between Jesus and the authorities seamlessly intermingles with the running of the sketches, ie. parables, lessons, and delightful recreations of a selection of memorable sketches and characters from “SNL,” all gamely taken on by the extremely malleable cast. Much like their counterparts on the late night sketch show, the eight-member ensemble switches roles effortlessly from one sketch to another. aided by the all-important costume designer/wardrobe supervisor Kristina Martin and wig designer/hair supervisor Molly Walz. Their work helps make the magic of multiple characters work like a charm, especially when Andy Baldwin dons a colorful ladies suit ensemble, spectacles and wig to recreate Dana Carvey’s legendary Church Lady, complete with superiority dance. His Church Lady also gets to lead “Learn Your Lessons Well” with an assist from ensemble Ashley D. Buster as a dead-on Tina Turner.
Throughout the performance, the other members of the ensemble prove their comedic and musical meddle time and time again. As they take on the lessons and parables, lead by Jesus, they also bring back memories of “SNL” past and present. With powerful and expressive vocals, and the chic-yet-distressed look, Laura Stracko serves as the musical guest Magda, who bears more than a striking resemblance to the late Amy Winehouse. Ella Green and Dakarai Brown take the stage in black fedoras and suits to close the first act with the soulful “Light of the World” as the “Rhythm Brothers.” Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi would be proud.
Along with her killer Tina Turner moment, Ashley D. Buster sings “Day by Day” with passion and clarity. Molly Shannon’s awkward Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher gets her moment as recreated by Katie Rey Bogdan’s rendition of the act two opener “Turn Back, O Man.” Bogdan, in a later sketch, reveals her deepest desire to have more cow bell.
Marc Pavan delivers a Justin Beiber-like version of “We Beseech Ye,” and was a stitch with Brown as the club-hopping Roxbury Boys. Young cast member J.P. Coletta showex his triple threat status by singing, dancing and playing the keyboards up a storm. (Last summer Coletta made a strong impression as Jerry Lee Lewis in Infinity’s production of Million Dollar Quartet.)
One performer stood out as one who could join the current cast of the venerable “SNL”, being equally adept at celebrity impressions, dance moves and singing. Grant Bowen, reminding me of longtime tv cast member Darrell Hammond, practically stole the show with his uncanny Bernie Sanders, Matthew Broderick, and Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian. Green joins Bowen to help tell the story of the Good Samaritan while at the same time bringing back the ultra-wild, German TV show sketch “The Sprockets.”
Other “SNL” moments meld less seamlessly with Godspell, but there are enough moments that do work to keep the show going and the energy popping right off the stage.
For my money, how a production handles the end of Godspell is the true barometer for success, the emotional climax when just as the community has fully bonded with Jesus, he reveals that one among them will betray him. Ostroff has his cast shed the artifice of the show-within-a-musical and show the raw emotion of their broken hearts, especially Hines as Jesus, who is simply following the path he knows is his. As the group says their painful goodbyes to Jesus, Baldwin’s Judas and the band sings a simple, heartfelt version of “On the Willows.” As the rest of the ensemble fades to backstage, Jesus and Judas are left to fulfill the prophecy in which Jesus’ life will be taken. Among the many moments in this production that are both entertaining and touching – of which there are many – I will say the death of Jesus here was anticlimactic for me. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but I was glad the ending of the show made up for the one misstep. Godspell is written to leave the audience uplifted and energized, given the playful nature of 90 percent of the show and the touching conclusion.
Infinity Theatre Company has succeeded in building a “beautiful city” of a musical. The Ostroffs are also successful Broadway producers who have brought several shows seen first in Annapolis to NYC. Could Godspell be one of them?
Godspell . Conceived and Originally Directed by John-Michael Tebelak . Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz . Based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew . Directed by Alan Ostroff . Featuring: Kyle Hines, Andy Baldwin, Dakarai Brown, Brooke Bloomquist, Katie Rey Bogdan, Grant Bowen, Ashley D. Buster, J.P. Coletta, Ella Green, Laura Stracko, and Marc Pavan . Music director: Laura Mueller . Choreographer: Kimberly Schafer . Scenic designer: Quinn Stone . Costume designer: Kristina Martin . Wig designer and hair consultant: Molly Walz . Lighting designer: Nathan Hawkins . Sound designer: Wes Shippee . Production stage manager: Kristin Loughry . Produced by Infinity Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.