Noah Golden, Associate Connecticut Critic
Unfortunately, shake-ups in the critic’s roster at OnStage meant I hadn’t visited The Ivoryton Playhouse for a quite a while. But as my ’18-’19 theatergoing season comes to a close, it felt important to check up on Ivoryton, a company that has been a Connecticut mainstay since its opening in 1930. I’ve seen many shows there over the years, both as critic and audience member, and they’ve always produced consistently polished, top-notch work that seems to focus more on maintaining high standards for classic shows and presenting professional versions of sunny modern favorites rather than mounting works that make political statements or that reimagine the source material. Even their decision a few years back to stage “Rent” – a rock musical that last felt controversial in the Reagan era – was met with grumbles from a portion of their subscriber base.
But I’m happy to report that their thoroughly winning “Godspell” not just keeps the Playhouse’s high standards but infuses it with a youthful and slyly political edge. There is nothing dusty or recreated in Jacqueline Hubbard’s joyous and spritely production of the 1971 Stephen Schwartz/John-Michael Tebelak musical. A community theater staple and oft-revived favorite, “Godspell’s” chameleon-like structure allows for each director and cast to put their own stamp on the show, so the success largely rests on a strong creative concept. Ivoryton’s “Godspell” (thankfully) does away with the hippy-clown shtick that often suffocates the play and sets the show in some version of the present. When the disparate group that will eventually gel into the apostles enters onto Martin Marchitto’s urban decay set, they wear contemporary outfits (by Cully Long) that wouldn’t seem out of place outside the proscenium. Morgan Morse is decked out in Brooklynite hipster attire while Jerica Exum looks on her way to a yoga class. Kaileah Hankerson and Gabriella Saramago don security guard and maid uniforms, respectively, while Sam Givens appears in stylish drag. The others – Kendrick Faulk, Lily Tobin, Josh Walker and Carson Higgins (John/Judas) – although less stylized, follow suit.
Once Jesus (Sam Sherwood) appears, crawling out of a sewer grate in ratty, beggar attire before being made over by John The Baptist’s holy water and some American Eagle-like apparel, the succession of song and parable begins. While not every joke lands (there are a few corny clunkers in the 50-year-old book), the cast is so energetic and spirited you don’t really notice. Attention was clearly made to make each new parable stylistically different and fresh, including some pop-culture-heavy underscoring (the “Law and Order” theme, as well as some Queen, made an aural appearance) while varied props and pieces like a sawhorse, wooden beams, a plunger, and an old umbrella were used in inventive, fun ways. For a show that can sometimes feel scattershot, this one was incredibly tight and brisk without a wasted moment. Hubbard and lighting designer Marcus Abbott also do wonders in using every inch of the set – from abandoned stoops to trash piles to a fire escape and even an ingenious bit with a fire hydrant – to constantly create new stage pictures that never feel too polished or manicured. If one can find fault with the wordier parts of this “Godspell,” it would be that the ensemble – as enthusiastic and charming as they are – occasionally veer into unnecessary mugging, leaving the emotional balance a bit lopsided. If the apostles toned down the funny voices and rubbery-faced antics by ten percent, the change from happy-go-lucky communal tribe to the eventual grief over Jesus’ betrayal and death would feel smoother and more organic. Both the silly and serious parts of “Godspell” are handled well, but there’s a noticeable tonal whiplash between them.
But the real success of this or any “Godspell” rests in the music, and there Ivoryton doesn’t disappoint. Using the fabulous, updated orchestrations from the 2011 Broadway revival and played by a rocking four-piece band (lead by Michael Morris), Stephen Schwartz’s eclectic score still feels unbelievably fresh and engaging. Each number is well delivered, with Faulk’s stirring “All Good Gifts,” Exum’s jubilant “Bless The Lord” and Morse’s rocking “Light Of The World” standing out. Then again, how can you leave out Given’s saucy, spirited “Turn Back, O Man,” hilarious ad-libs to the (mostly geriatric and somewhat uncomfortable) men in the aisle included? Sherwood, endearingly at ease and friendly as Jesus, also beautifully delivers “Beautiful City” and the haunting finale with a tightly coiled vibrato and occasional rasp that brought to mind a young Raul Esparza. When the whole company is singing together, playing their own instruments and performing Todd Underwood’s suitably freeform choreographer, it’s unabashedly fun and joyous.
Yes, “Godspell” is an enjoyable and silly showcase, but under all the merriment Hubbard’s production is smart and thoughtful in the ways it makes the show feel like a piece that belongs in 2019. The show opens to news reports about global warming, North Korea and immigration. One parable includes mention of equal pay for equal work, and there are a few prerequisite Trump jabs. But the most politically-minded thing isn’t the new soundbites and jokes, it’s the seamlessly diverse group Hubbard has assembled to retell these timeless biblical messages of inclusion and peace. When Jesus gathers his devoted followers – black, brown and white, queer and straight, short and tall – and tells them “so be devoted to one another and rejoice in hope. Give with simplicity. Show mercy with cheerfulness. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with love,” he’s talking to all of us, no matter how different we may look and how varied our backgrounds might be. It’s a message we need more now than ever.
“Godspell” runs at Ivoryton Playhouse through June 16. “Godspell,” originally conceived and directed by John-Michael Tebelak with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, is directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Jacqui Hubbard and features musical directed by Michael M. Morris, choreographed by Todd L. Underwood, set design by Martin Marchitto, costumes by Cully Long and lighting design by Marcus Abbott. The cast includes: Sam Sherwood (Jesus), Carson Higgins (Judas), Sam Given, Morgan Morse, Lilly Tobin, Jerica Exum, Kedrick Falk, Kaileah
Hankerson, Gabriella Saramago, and Josh Walker. For more information, visit: www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.