Christian Jost, Contributing Critic - Washington D.C.
I always enjoy reviewing a show that I’ve never seen performed before; it allows me to have little moments of surprise and shock. There were plenty of those moments in Rooftop’s Godspell. Godspell was originally created by Stephen Schwartz (Music) and John-Michael Tebelak (Book) in the early 1970s. There was also a 2012 revised version of the show which is the version Rooftop is using for this production. It is a retelling of the teachings/life of Jesus using an interactive and “Big Tent” approach to the Gospels. The first act starts with Jesus’s baptism and continues to a series of Vignettes that each include teaching from the Bible and a song by one of the ensemble members. The second act takes a darker turn as it deals with the last days of Jesus, which I’d hate to spoil for anyone unfamiliar with the story!
Ryan Walker excelled in the role of Jesus, commanding attention and focus every time he was on stage. He ranged from kind to stern to loving, and ultimately to heartbroken. I believed he cared for each and every one of his “disciples” and only ever wanted the best for them. His vocals never faltered, and he never seemed out of the moment. The script doesn’t provide very many given moments for Judas to shine in the piece, but that didn’t stop Jay Tilley from creating his own moments to shine. He gradually broke off from the group and made it clear he wasn’t buying everything Jesus was selling. The two worked quite well together, making the ending of the musical that much more tragic.
I always enjoy musicals that give the ensemble actual roles as opposed to “Women 5” or something along those lines. In my experience, ensembles that have parts work better together and give more effective performances. This was the case for Rooftop’s production. I can’t stress this enough; there was not a single weak member of this ensemble. They all had their moments to shine but stayed committed to their characters even when they weren’t center stage. Franklin Williams danced like nobody was watching, Betsy Hansen was hilarious, and Ashley Williams blew the rough off with her vocals. R.J. Smith, Peter Thaxter, Lindsey Capuno, and Letty Vita were also all very talented performers and performed all their solos to perfection. The most compelling member of the ensemble was Stephanie Blakely who sang great, but it was her work in the background that stood out. She showed genuine emotion and humanity with all the events going on around her, especially towards the end of the play. I can only hope to see more from her and all the members of this ensemble, who could just as easily be leading players.
The performance space is quite small, but that didn’t stop Director/Set Designer Ted Ballard from making the most out of it. The space never felt small when the actors were on stage; all the movements seemed natural and thoughtful. Daniel Holmes also did great work as the production’s Music Director, never letting any number get away from him. The choreography from Maureen Hagerman worked will in the smaller space, allowing for free movement with the actors running into each other. It was simple and easily doable for each member of the show; all shapes and sizes could move naturally and be in sync.
Godspell has two more weekends of performances at the Center for the Arts in Manassas Va. More info can be found here: https://center-for-the-arts.org/tickets/