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REVIEW: Belmont’s ‘Godspell’ shimmers despite bare script and score

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

If you’re a Bible Belter who’s always wanted to experience Burning Man but not enough to make the trek to Nevada, find your way instead to Belmont’s Troutt Theater. That’s where the university’s musical theater department is staging the hit 1971 musical “Godspell” through Sunday, and the experience can’t be too far off from the bohemian festival that graces the southwest deserts each summer. If Jesus Christ were to return to earth and restart his ministry in the desert just north of Reno with a co-ed group of hippies as his disciples, the result would be Belmont’s infectious and compelling “Godspell.” The premise of the show, which has no real plot, is simple: it retells the parables of Jesus Christ illustrated by a variety of theatrical techniques, many of which turn the profound teachings that have become so deeply woven into American culture into playful, entertaining moments. If you think the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18 can’t be told through an on-stage round of “Family Feud,” you’re wrong. The same is true for the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant as a game of duck, duck, goose, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a puppet show. “Godspell” has all those things, and its playful elements have made the show a longtime favorite for colleges, high schools and community theaters. The show’s material is a field day for directors, who get to dig into the deepest recesses of their imagination to stage the parables. Plenty of ensemble members have big opportunities to shine — virtually every one of them gets a major solo at one point or another. However, companies do face an uphill climb in successfully mounting “Godspell.” Its score by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Pippin”) is bare. Most songs, though tuneful, feature virtually nothing more lyrically than repeating a hook, usually a direct quote from scripture — in the song “Bless the Lord,” the phrase “bless the Lord” is sung a painstaking 16 times. Its book by John-Michael Tebelak, though highly inventive and original, leans toward camp. It’s why critics for The New York Times have, over the years, written that “Godspell” invokes memories of “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.” Yet, Belmont manages to make the evening interesting and, at times, exciting thanks to the energy and talent of its cast. Josh Jordan, who leads the company as Jesus, embodies everything you would expect from the most charismatic man to ever walk the earth. Perhaps it is due to the contrast of his character to the ensemble’s persistent perkiness, but Jordan consistently maintains a presence that makes you think, “yeah, I would definitely follow that guy.” He’s consistently comforting, both to his fellow castmates and the audience. That’s never truer than when he sings “Beautiful City,” a performance reminiscent of John Legend’s 2018 live-on-television portrayal of the same character in a different show, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The ensemble, the members of which all appeared to have consumed multiple bottles of 5-hour Energy before the performance, consistently maintains the vigor and vivacity necessary to sustain a show with such little textual depth. When ensemble members got to take center stage for their solos, they each took advantage of the moment. Notable performances included Olivia Whitner’s emotive “Light of the World,” Simon Elliott’s beautifully sung “Prepare Ye” and virtually anything the hilarious but soulful Christian Sandoval brought to the stage. Another way Belmont’s production leaps beyond the flat material of “Godspell” is by heavily involving the audience, a technique cleverly employed by director Sean Martin. Audience members were called onto the stage at various points in the show to participate in the artful presentation of Jesus’ parables. One young man led a game of charades, and a young woman got to grab a pen for an activity that resembled Pictionary. This could have easily become a highly distracting debacle if not for Martin’s steady hand. He had the cast completely prepared to seamlessly involve unprepared and unrehearsed audience members in the show; cast members quickly whispered clear instructions to the temporary new additions as each of them took the stage. Another decision that assisted in the audience involvement, the credit for which goes to both Martin and lighting designer Richard Davis, was the choice to keep the house mostly lit for the entirety of the show. This allowed for several songs to be performed from the audience, and it made the production feel less like a performance and more like a community event — clearly one of its goals. Even if the exciting talent of the company and the tricks Martin pulled out of his sleeve aren’t enough to keep you from checking your program to see how many of Schwartz’s repetitive songs are left before you can leave, the show’s penultimate scene will make you glad you came. As Judas, played by the uber-talented Josh Ferguson, sings of his decision to betray Christ in “On the Willows,” Jesus begins to hug each member of the ensemble, one by one. Once bursting with enough energy to cause a nuclear reaction, the cast was suddenly somber and teary-eyed. Their grief at the impending death of their savior is palpable at that moment. Such an atmosphere is a tremendous achievement when, just 10 minutes ago, the company was dancing the night away to the groovy and loud “We Beseech Thee.” If you’re looking to be impressed by tremendous theatrical writing that forces you to think even moderately deeply about humanity and religion, this isn’t the show for you. But if you simply want to have fun and spend an evening with a cast that proves the future of musical theater is in great hands, buy a ticket and “Prepare Ye” for a night of energy, talent and high-quality direction.

“Godspell” was directed by Sean Martin with lighting design by Richard Davis. Book by John-Michael Tebelak. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.

PHOTO: Josh Jordan (center) as Jesus with castmates in a dress rehearsal for “Godspell” in Belmont’s Troutt Theater. Belmont University College of Music and Performing Arts

This review was written by Luke Worsham.

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