Saturday, September 19, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Godspell at The Gallery Players by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of “Godspell" at The Gallery Players was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Directed by Mark Harborth
Book by John Michael Tebelak
Music & New Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Pianist: Kyle Branzel
The Gallery Players
199 14th Street
Brooklyn, New York 11215
Reviewed 9/18/15 

Godspell originated in 1970 as John Michael Tebelak's master's thesis project, under the direction of Lawrence Carra, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A version was performed at Carnegie Mellon in 1970, with several of the cast members from the CMU Music Department. Tebelak then directed the show, with much of the student cast, for a two-week, ten-performance run at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (a/k/a Cafe La Mama), New York City opening February 24, 1971 as a non-musical play. It was brought to the attention of producers Edgar Lansbury (brother of Angela Lansbury), Joseph Beruh, and Stuart Duncan by Carnegie alumnus Charles Haid (Associate Producer), who wanted to open it Off-Broadway. The producers hired Stephen Schwartz, another alumnus of Carnegie Mellon's theatre department, to write a new song score. Godspell, the musical, opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre on May 17, 1971, transferred to the Promenade Theatre three months later, and closed on June 13, 1976, after 2,124 performances. The first Broadway production opened on June 22, 1976, at the Broadhurst Theatre. The musical transferred to the Plymouth Theatre and later to the Ambassador Theatre, where it closed on September 4, 1977, after 527 performances and five previews. There was a revival at the Lamb's Theatre that ran from June 12 to December 31, 1988, followed by an Off-Broadway revival at the York Theatre from August 2, 2000 to October 7, 2000. The first Broadway revival began performances on October 31, 2011 at the Circle In The Square Theatre and officially opened on November 7, 2011. The production closed on June 24, 2012.

The structure of the musical involves the acting out of a series of parables, mostly based on the Gospel of Matthew (three of the featured parables are recorded only in the Gospel of Luke), that are interspersed with musical numbers. Through these "lessons," we are supposed to believe that a devoted cult is formed around the charismatic personality of Jesus and that his followers stay together after he is executed to teach his message of salvation to others. Everything Jesus does is to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament and to set himself up as the Messiah. As Jesus says in the musical, "I did not come to abolish the prophets or the law but to complete them." But the truth may be that Jesus intended to overthrow the existing Jewish religious hierarchy and the Romans, with the goal of having each of his Twelve Apostles head up one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. It is this worldly goal that Judas may have reported to the Roman authorities in return for a reward. Once Jesus, the failed revolutionary, got crucified, all that was left was for his followers to say, "The King Is Dead. Long Live The King" and continue on promoting his message that the time of judgment was near.

In the "Tower of Babble" song, which was included as the opening number in this production of Godspell, cast members speak about the various philosophies they believe in before being baptized by John, Jesus's cousin, who speaks of the Chosen One who will be coming after him. It is highly unlikely that intelligent, self-actualized people who used their reason and logic to adopt a particular philosophy would so quickly abandon it in favor of what Jesus now told them God wanted them to do. The very controversial new "neo-Judaic" philosophy may have resonated with the poor and ignorant, but certainly not with the educated. Seriously, who, except the poor and uneducated would go along with the following messages taught through the telling of the parables: "If a man sues you for your shirt, give him your shirt and coat as well."; "No man can serve two masters - God and Money."; "Never turn your back on one who wishes to borrow."; "If a man hits you, do not hit him back but turn the other cheek."; "Don't worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself."; "Every man who humbles himself will be exalted."; and "Don't do good deeds just to get adoration before men. Your good deeds must be in secret." The old chestnut is that the rich and successful may have it better here on Earth, but the poor and humble will get their reward in Heaven. All that backs up this new "Christian" philosophy is the promise of eternal Salvation and threat of eternal Damnation, teachings Christians have had a hard time convincing descendants of the Enlightenment have any basis in fact. 

This production of Godspell lacked the positive, emotional impact and upbeat atmosphere you might expect to experience. There are many reasons for this, but the most evident is the performance of Sean O'Shea as Jesus. Sure, he looks the part, but the affected delivery of his lines was extremely distracting. Let me just say that if he slapped me in the face like he did Judas in the play, I would have slapped him back, just for being overbearing and annoying. In Act Two, when Jesus goes off to pray for an hour, his disciples fall asleep and he is very upset with them. Jesus is forced to wake them up, and along with them, a few audience members who were asleep and snoring during most of the show, one right in the front row. Diego Rios did a fine job as John The Baptist and Judas as did the remaining cast members, which included Elyse Beyer, Sarah Denight, Albert Jennings, Ashli Louis, Jacleen Olson, Aramie, and Geena Quintos. All had superior voices and acting abilities. The show's standout performer was Adrian Rifat, a charismatic, rising star who gave his all and did his best to arouse the audience to actively participate with what was happening on stage, especially when he sang "We Beseech Thee." Mr. Rifat, who is a 2012 graduate of the American Musical & Dramatic Academy, is a multi-talented actor with a great future in the theatre (if you are interested, he can also execute a Wookie call and crochet). Had Adrian Rifat been cast as Jesus in this production, the end result may have been very different than it turned out. 

Godspell at The Gallery Players was disappointing because the cast members failed to exhibit the rapport that was supposed to be built throughout the first act. With that missing, all you have are parables and some well-sung songs, which were not enough to hold this show together. There was one funny line inserted into the script. When a priest stepped over a man who had been beaten and robbed without helping him, the priest looked down and said "you're not an altar boy!" implying that if he was an altar boy, the priest would have helped him.

On a different issue relating to the audience's experience, I found the new, increased price of concession items to be very unfortunate and disturbing - $2.00 for a small cup of coffee/tea; $3.00 for a can of soda (which is 50% more than anyone charges in Times Square and was a price I refused to pay); and $6.00 as the suggested donation for a small plastic cup of wine. In my opinion, the Board of Directors of The Gallery Players should not view concessions as a way to milk the audience out of additional funds but as an amenity to make the theatre-going experience more enjoyable. That means reasonably priced home-baked or bakery bought goods, $1.00 coffees and teas, $2.00 soda (maximum price), and $4.00 suggested donation for wine; and all in bigger cups. 

For more information about the upcoming 2015-2016 season of The Gallery Players and for tickets to Godspell, visit 

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