Following the successes of productions of “George Orwell’s 1984”, “Taming of the Shrew” and “Hairspray”, Hillsboro Players is currently mounting “Godspell”. As they have for the past three productions, Fine Arts faculty members Will Butler and Kristin Moon are at the helm of the show as director and assistant director.
With music by Stephen Schwartz and book by John-Michael Tebelak, “Godspell” debuted off Broadway in 1971. Interestingly, international tours came next, then a film version in 1973, with the show eventually making its way to Broadway in 1976.
As the musical’s title might suggest, the show is based in biblical teachings, but Butler points out in the program’s director’s note, “‘Godspell’ isn’t meant to convert, but instead spark a change within ourselves and those around us.”
In it’s original presentation, “Godspell” had a much longer title. Initially it was “Godspell: A Musical Based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew”. It would seem that the tagline of the 1973 film adaptation explains the plot more accurately with “Godspell: The Gospel according to Today”. Basically it’s a modern-day re-imagining of Jesus and his disciples that strings together life lessons and biblical parables with a score full of memorable and beautifully melodic tunes.
As he did with “Taming of the Shrew”, which was set in a 1920’s tent revival instead of the usual Shakespearean era, Butler has moved the action of “Godspell” from the film’s oddly-abandoned New York City to an equally quiet theatre company. To that end, Butler pulls double duty as set designer, creating a gorgeous gilded lighted frame around the stage area, perhaps alluding to the oft-reference ‘city of gold’ described in the Bible as reward for those who follow Jesus’ example. Heck, there’s even one scene in which when Jesus speaks, the aforementioned lights that surround the framed set shine brighter than when his disciples repeat his words. This subtle but effecting light cue may call to mind the way Jesus’ words appear in red letter editions of the Bible to allow the reader to easily reference his teachings.
Part of the old-school charm of “Godspell” has always been the inclusion of a wide range of musical genres. Having seen this show more times than I can remember, what seemed new and fun several performances ago, can easily date the piece. To their credit, Butler, Moon and choreographer Denise Eason do indeed pay homage to the original show’s inclusion of everything from pop and folk to barber shop quartet harmonies to gospel, but they do so in a way that doesn’t feel forced. A way that brings new life to the work. From jazz hands to rhythmic beats, with what seemed to be a wink to The Peanuts Gang dance moves, it’s all there, and it’s all wonderful.
Adding a tad more of a modern feel to the piece, Butler has taken a bit of creative license by peppering the script with a few jabs at current hot topics including Cosby and Trump. I’m sure I even heard a little Obama voice pattern impression as well.
Traditionally, only the roles of Jesus, John The Baptists and Judas Iscariot (that latter two usually portrayed by one actor) are identified by familiar names found in the Bible, while the rest of the cast is simply referred to by the names of the actors playing the roles. The film version basically set the standard for the characters’ identifiers, giving them such general identities as window shopper, ballerina, college student and the like. Again Butler has put his unique spin on this with more contemporary identities never spoken, but easily conveyed as millennial, derelict, powerhouse and such.
Appearing in his sixth show with Hillsboro Players is Thomas Wagner as Jesus. Of his six previous productions with the company, two of those, Wilbur Turnblad in “Hairspray: The Musical” and Lucentio in the aforementioned “Shrew”, have been under Butler’s direction. Wagner, with his blondish-brown short hairstyle and lanky build may not look the part of our tradition image of Jesus, but then again, we are learning day by day that that image may not be so accurate. Anyway, it’s that part of the point? We all have the potential to cultivate good in one another regardless of our outward appearance. Regardless, Wagner is spectacular in the role. He delivers his lines with conviction and tackles his musical moments with aplomb, especially the heartfelt “Save the People” and Act Two’s “Beautiful City.
Making his Hillsboro Players’ debut in “Godspell” is Benjamin Rogers in the dual roles of John The Baptist and Judas. This may be his Hillsboro debut, but his confident stage presence and chemistry have no doubt been honed in previous performances with his church’s dinner theatre productions of “Bye Bye Birdie”, “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Fiddler on The Roof”. Following the chaos of the show’s opening number, Rogers takes control with a calm and reassuring rendition of “Prepare Ye”, yet another of the show’s familiar earworms.
While the guys in the cast, including Ashton Harris, Nicholas Lewandowski and Lavon Taylor all have their shining moments, quite often providing a touch of humor to their respective stage time, it’s the girls who rule the disciple roles with great musical moments all-round. From Arly Benitez and Skylar Fischer and their lead vocals on “”Bless the Lord” and “By My Side”, respectively, to Brena Lawrence’s belt-it-out turn on “Learn Your Lessons Well”, Lilly Moore’s beautiful reminder to do the best you can “Day by Day”, and finally, Tiyanna Gentry’s fiery performance of “Turn Back, O Man”, the ladies of Hillsboro Players ain’t playin’.
Hillsboro Players’ “Godspell” continues it’s all-too-brief run now through Tuesday, February 29 with nightly performances at 7 p.m. at Hillsboro High School’s theater space located on the campus (3812 Hillsboro Pike in the heart of Green Hills). Tickets are $12 for General Admission, or $8 for Students and are available at the door or online. Click Here to purchase tickets in advance. To follow Hillsboro Players on Facebook, Click Here. Follow them on Twitter and be sure to include #hhgodspell.
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