Flower children singing and dancing to rock and roll, clownish sock puppetry, story-telling through rap … these don’t quite conjure up thoughts of Jesus and his Holy Disciples, but these are the exact devices used to tell Jesus’s story in “Godspell.”
Indiana Festival Theatre opens its summer 2014 season with “Godspell,” directed and choreographed by George Pinney. As the head of IU’s musical theater program, Pinney has directed or choreographed more than 50 productions for IU Theatre.
The show was considered revolutionary at its inception back in 1970, and it somehow still feels that way in 2014. The piece came to be when John-Michael Tebelak, dissatisfied with the practices and attitudes of mainstream Christian churches, set out to recreate “the simple, joyful message that (he) felt the first time (he) read (the Gospels).” Tebelak saw the theater as a perfect medium for his mission.
As audience members, we join the disciples in learning the moral teachings of Jesus. The 10 actors in “Godspell” use music, dancing, puppetry, clowning, games, rap and whimsical voices to tell parables from the Bible. These devices are humorous at some points, yet profound at others.
Other unusual traits of the show: Actors, with the exceptions of Jesus and John the Baptist/Judas, go by their own personal names. All 10 of the actors remain on stage throughout the show. And if you choose to attend, you may be invited to participate.
Even aside from the religious aspects, “Godspell” undoubtedly radiates joy. Stephen Schwartz’s music incites feelings of community, love and celebration. Stylistically, the score incorporates influences from hard rock, gospel, classic show tunes and spiritual hymns.
Arguably, the production’s strongest attribute is its vocal performances. Caleb Fath’s singing in the role of Jesus was — pun intended — heavenly. Vocal abilities were strong across the board, with no noticeable weak links in the cast. Todd Aulwurm, Mia Fitzgibbon and Colin Schreier (John the Baptist/Judas) all had particularly impressive solo songs.
The musical accompaniment was masterfully realized by a five-piece rock band under the leadership of Terry LaBolt. Their play..ing provided the ideal sonic backdrop for the singers.
The show is updated from its initial 1970 premiere by the additions of abundant pop-culture references and modern technology. The evening started out with actors running across the stage absorbed in their own phones and tablets. This introduction effectively contrasted the communal atmosphere that permeated through the rest of the play.
“Godspell” is often remembered for its hit song “Day by Day” (beautifully led by in this production by Kelsey Shaw). However, audience members may leave the theater humming more unfamiliar tunes, such as “Learn Your Lessons Well,” “All for the Best” and “Light of the World.” Though each disciple has one solo feature in the performance, almost every song eventually escalates to include participation from the entire company.
Caleb Fath plays Jesus with confidence, friendliness, positivity and sincerity. His pure voice was perfectly suited to the part; this was especially apparent during his touching rendition of “Beautiful City.”
Despite the brightness and humor of the show’s bulk, it did manage to strike more serious tones in the second act. This generally lighthearted musical did not shy away from depicting the full weight of its subject.
Robbie Stanton’s costume design was a marvelous triumph. Stanton injected a profusion of color into the Wells-Metz Theatre. Lighting designer Lee Burckes also made significant contributions, using the lights to intensify dramatic moments.
Regardless of one’s religious inclinations or lack thereof, it’s hard to attend “Godspell” without feeling overcome by a sense of glory. The show uses the powers of music and story-telling to rejoice and worship. If you are looking for a fresh take on an ancient story, “Godspell” is sure to please.
If you go
WHO: Indiana Festival Theatre.
WHAT: “Godspell” by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and June 17-21, 24-28; 2 p.m. Sunday and June 22, 29.
WHERE: Wells-Metz Theatre.
TICKETS: $15-$25. Available at www.theatre.indiana.edu or call the IU Auditorium box office at 812-855-1103.