Review: “Godspell” at Westport Community Theater

Noah Golden

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic

Living on the shoreline, I had never seen a production put on by Westport Community Theater nor do I know any of its members, so I was excited to be introduced to them when I arrived at their black box theater housed at the local town hall. I was however familiar with Stephen Schwarz and John-Michael Tebelak’s oft-produced and visionary musical “Godspell,” which has been retelling the Gospel According to St. Matthew through song and skit since 1971. It was a good fit as “Godspell” is the perfect show to get an overall sense of who a theater group is. With its loose structure and open-ended aesthetic, “Godspell” can be a playground for directors and actors to put their unique stamp on. But that amount of freedom can be a mixed bag and, even more than your typical musical, the fate of “Godspell” rests in a few key decisions. 

Right off the bat, director Maggie Pangrazio made two bold choices. The most successful of which is setting the show in a coffee house, the modern version of the Roman forum. Placed into the small and inviting thrust stage, are an open mic platform, a coffee bar, tables and chairs. Eclectic art and tchotchkes line the walls. Inhabiting it are some well-known Millennial archetypes: a college-aged woman performing poetry, a hipster dictating his thoughts on an old typewriter, a conservatively dressed academic, a Latina young woman in a shirt that reads “yes, homo.” Post baptism, they will become a united tribe under the eyes of an unusually youthful Jesus.

 Photo: WCT

Photo: WCT

In Pangrazio’s “Godspell,” Jesus is played by Tyler Campbell, a fresh-faced, casual young man who could easily pass for a high school student. Judas (Bill Warncke), on the other hand, is middle-aged and dressed in a suit and tie. In theory, this idea has a lot of potential. Judas could represent the bankers and businessmen, the old guard, with Jesus being the hip wunderkind who brings about revolution. Judas’ doubting outbursts could be attributed to his old-fashioned worldview, while Jesus’ sudden anger being the tantrum of a brilliant but immature prodigy in way over his head. And yet it never quite translates to the stage as much as it needed to.

Perhaps if Warncke had been more serious and dour from the beginning, his journey from outsider to skeptical tribe member to traitor would have been in sharper focus. Campbell, too, needed to display more charisma and nuance to better capture such a magnetic and complicated character. Both are fine performers and do some collectively good work here, but their skill set as actors and the characters asked of them never quite matched up. This is a shame as the push-and-pull relationship between the two men is what holds the loose threads of the story together. Without Jesus’ firm leadership and mysterious allure, and without a fully developed antagonist to play against, this “Godspell” can sometimes lose its sense of urgency and cohesiveness. 

Much of the energy then is created by the eager and talented ensemble. Given the gift of Schwartz’s stellar score – which pinballs from folk rock to burlesque and back – the apostles really shine when they step forward to claim a solo. Jessica Paige Braun brought an infectious presence, wide vocal range and beautiful, tightly coiled vibrato to “O Bless The Lord My Soul.” Other vocal highlights were courtesy of Juan Ayala, whose assured, sensitive “All Good Gifts” really soared, and “Turn Back O Man’s” spirited Betzabeth Castro, who would make a killer Nina if Westport Community Theater ever mounts “In The Heights.” It was Katherine Logan, though, that my eyes kept gravitating towards whether she was leading the standout “By My Side” in a pristine soprano or adding a needed dose of authentic vulnerability or joy in the parable sketches.  Her light shone very bright. They were joined by multitalented apostles Rob Pawlikowski, Rosalind Cormier, Dena Lagonigro, Emily Beers and Caitlin Brown.

“Godspell” may just be the quintessential community theater show. There’s the excellent score, ability to refresh, reinvent and modernize without hurting the piece’s integrity and the somewhat slapdash, informal style that’s involved in even the most prestigious productions. While Pangrazio didn’t deviate too much from the archetypical “Godspell” once we get into parable story time, she thankfully stayed away from the hippy clown theme that so often dogs the show. She also does a nice job of constantly reinventing the static set into new stage pictures and playing with a few new modern pop culture and musical theater references.

But even more than that, both “Godspell” and the groups producing it follow the same basic journey. Here we have a diverse group of people from all walks of life, ethnicity and age coming together to create something bigger than themselves. They bring their individual talents to the table to learn and grow together under the tutelage of a teacher who sees the bigger picture and then walks away when the group is strong enough to continue the work on their own.

It is a real pleasure to watch a group such as this build, as one song puts it, a beautiful city together so visibly on stage. Between its strikingly diverse cast and friendly atmosphere that pervaded the theater, it’s clear Westport Community Theater does well in honoring the community part of its name and has built quite a few beautiful cities over its astonishing 60 year run. While this particular one may not be perfect, it was certainly an entertaining and worthwhile place to visit.

“Godspell” runs through June 28 at the Westport Town Hall.