Followers of Jesus post Bible verses on Reddit. John the Baptist unplugs the wifi to get everyone’s attention. The surrendering of your cell phone or laptop is the ultimate show of commitment to the message.
This is Godspell in 2018.
Herndon’s NextStop Theatre Company makes sure to bring its production of the 70s-born, vaudeville-influenced musical from Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak into the 21st Century. Set in a typical coffee house, this Godspell has multimedia accents (including a livestream of the play’s eerie crucifixion scene), line dancing breaks, even a nod to the Pitch Perfect “Cups” number. Not every modern twist works — political jokes feel heavy-handed, a hip-hop interlude feels awfully square. But this Godspell, directed and choreographed by Lorraine Magee, generally feels fresh and accessible (musical arrangements borrow heavily from the recent Broadway revival).
And that can be a challenge. While Godspell has been revered for its musical legacy, including the gentle hit “Day by Day,” the soaring “All Good Gifts,” and the sultry “Turn Back, O Man,” its broad, cutesy interpretation of the various parables in the gospel of Matthew can feel a little treacly, its hippie band of players almost exhaustingly perky. NextStop’s cast helps counter this possibility by never taking themselves too seriously (the gifted belter Chani Wereley, clad in a Wonder Woman get-up, is particularly gifted at funny, sarcastic asides).
NextStop has found a charismatic Jesus figure in Alan Naylor, whose silly putty limbs allow him to breeze his way through song and dance routines like “All for the Best.” Naylor, who feels straight out of one of those contemporary, guitar-strumming church services, particularly shines in the show’s more wistful moments, like a hopeful rendition of “Beautiful City.” Meanwhile, the gifted ensemble lifts up each musical number: AJ Whittenberger proves a deft physical comedian in “We Beseech Thee;” Tess Higgins delivers a sharp and upbeat “Learn Your Lessons Well;” Jolene Vettese leads the cast in the melancholy and melodic “By My Side.” The show does have some occasional sound balance issues, with the orchestra or chorus overpowering the main vocalists at times.
closes April 1, 2018
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NextStop periodically involves its audience in the production, bringing watchers onstage to participate in scenes of “Charades” or passing flashlights out to give a concert-like vibe to “Light of the World.” Naylor takes a few moments to reach out directly into the audience, grasping hands and making eye contact with his band of would-be followers. It all helps drive home Godspell’s rather palatable message, even to non-believers, in today’s era: one of generosity, inclusiveness, and compassion.
Godspell. Conceived by John-Michael Tebelak, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed and Choreographed by Lorraine Magee. With Angeleaza Anderson, Philip da Costa, Javier del Pilar, Tess Higgins, Jennifer Lambert, Bobby Libby, Alan Naylor, Jolene Vettese, Chani Wereley, AJ Whittenberger. Music Direction by Elisa Roman. Scenic Design by Jack Golden. Costume Design by Maria Bissex. Produced by NextStop Theatre Company. Reviewed by Missy Frederick.