Nancy Sasso Janis
The 'Godspell' running at The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts includes music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. One of all-time favorite musicals was conceived and originally directed by John Michael Tebelak; here TBTA welcomes Mensah Robinson ('Spelling Bee' and 'Into the Woods') in his community theater directorial debut. Mr. Robinson acknowledges in his notes that "this show has an undeniable message of love at its heart. It was imperative to me that we tell this story as best we could, with no sacrifices and no settling." I can comfortably attest that the director and his talented cast and musicians accomplished just that.
As I drove to the lovely intimate venue in Brookfield, I heard the Cat Steven's song "Where Do the Children Play?" on my car radio and remembered that Mr. Robinson had said on WZBG's Backstage with Johnny O that the set designed by Robert Lane and Andrew Okell was a playground, complete with a plastic slide. It worked well with the cast's colorful costumes with a youngish vibe designed by producer Rebecca Pokorski (Stepmother in 'Into the Woods.') It was all backed by the signature red brick wall that was the theme of the recent Broadway revival. Mr. Robinson noted that this matinee performance marked the anniversary of the Broadway opening of the original 'Godspell' at the Cherry Lane Theatre on May 17, 1971.
My program was covered with notes that I took during the performance because this was the revival version that I had felt compelled to compare to the original version that I knew by heart. The changes to the bouncy score are sometimes minor tweaks and sometimes major overhauls as in "Save the People." For me, most of them were tolerable and in some cases improvements; I loved "By My Side" (written by Peggy Gordon with lyrics by Jay Hamburger as it was in the original) and the finale that smartly but briefly reprised a few of the other numbers was far superior. The choreography by Sarah Lorenzini was nonstop and wonderfully executed.
The quick-paced parables and the passion of the second act seemed to me to be mostly the same, except that the myriad of pop culture references had been updated to include Nike (instead of Keds,) Hot Pockets, "Happy," Facebook, Twitter, Simon Cowell, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Occupy Brookfield. I appreciated them all, even the ones I didn't quite get.
The cast members used their own names for their characters and most had their one number to show off their singing voice, and sing they did. Joel Baglia played the John the Baptist/Judas role with a costume change from island wear to a Batman tee. Rob Bassett (Mark in 'Rent') took on the role of the DJ in the speaker busting "We Beseech Thee." Newtown HS sophomore Julia Bogdanoff sang the lead on a tweaked "Bless the Lord" and Brooke Morris sang beautifully on the iconic "Day by Day."
John Mudgett did well with his solo on the first act closer "Light of the World" and Ryan J. Taylor brought an amazing comic take to everything he did and took the lead on "All Good Gifts." Cheerleader Kate Valiska was part of the trio on "On the Willows" and Alexis Willoughby sang "By My Side" with heartfelt sincerity. Karl Hinger was quite adorable in many parables.
Emily Seibert opened the second act with a flirty "Turn Back, O Man" and was a pleasure to watch in all of her parable roles. Erin West Reed (Peter Pan himself at the Warner) makes her TBTA debut in 'Godspell' and was amazing in the updated tempo of "Learn Your Lessons Well." Marcelo Calderon, who studies classical guitar at WCSU, played the role of Jesus with a gentle vibe and a Superman tee and was at his best when he sang in his gentle voice as in "Save the People" and the updated "Beautiful City." Kudos to this young man on a fine overall performance.
The outstanding band under the direction of Tom Morris featured five talented musicians seated along the back of the stage that covered well the updated score. Jessica Smith served as vocal director.
'Godspell' continues at TBTA 184 Whisconier Road in Brookfield Thurs., Fri. & Sat. nights at 8PM. Sun. May 17 at 2PM May 21, 22, 23, 28, 29 & 30.