The Placer Performance Calendar


Great Local Shows - Theatrical Reviews

Title Godspell
Organization Placer Community Theater
Date(s) of show February 27-March 12, 2016
Reviewer Dick Frantzreb
Review This was my first experience of a theatrical production in the General Gomez Arts and Event Center. It is fundamentally an open space, so there was no proscenium, no curtain and a fairly small stage area. Seating was cabaret-style: 4-person tables, accommodating an audience that might have numbered about 100. Recorded folk music was playing while we waited for the show to start, and people circulated to take everyone’s dessert order. The “set” was rough: it reminded me of a vacant lot in a city, with “trash” distributed strategically.

I realized almost immediately that this was not to be the version of Godspell that I saw in San Francisco in the 1970s. My first clue was when one of the actors received a call on a cell phone. Soon after a tweet from Socrates was displayed on a screen at the back of the stage. I learned later that Godspell has evolved with many revivals over the years, and what we were seeing was a version from 2012. With the display of actors’ cell phones at the beginning of the show and the projected tweets that continued clever commentary throughout, it was clear to the audience at the start that we were going to be treated to a hip version of this classic, full of contemporary references.

I see the show as a series of skits, each emphasizing an event, a teaching or a parable from the ministry of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. The variety in each skit (if I may call them that) was dazzling, with each song staged in a different way and something fresh about each of the dramatizations. It briefly occurred to me that it would be impossible to summarize or even characterize this show, but I’ll try.

For a start, there was good acting, plus a lot of overacting which, to my mind, is one of the characteristics of improvisation. And indeed, I had the sense that a great part of the show was improvised, certainly with respect to the blocking but also in the way the characters interacted with each other, and possibly in the dialog, as well. I bet that no two performances of this show will have been quite the same. This gave these actors an opportunity to really turn loose, but it also put an enormous burden on them, especially considering that each was on stage for virtually the entire performance. The fortunate thing was that this was a group of multi-talented people. I would guess them to all be experienced improvisers. And they put on some nicely choreographed dance routines (thanks to choreographer Dinah Smith) with good ensemble singing. There were a lot of good voices on display for solos, as well.

The music was accompanied by a 4-piece band ably led on the keyboard by music director, Anne Vaaler (who occasionally contributed vocals). True to the origin of the show, the music was an eclectic mix of rock, folk and ballads, with some very memorable tunes. I’ve liked “Day by Day” and “All Good Gifts” for decades, but in this show I was particularly impressed with “By My Side” and “Beautiful City.”

This was an incredibly complex show. Much of it was scripted, but I expect that most of it was an invention of the fertile mind of director Charles Davidson, with of course improvisational contributions by the actors: David Abrahams, Genevieve Schloesser, Sallee Kallenbach, Chris Whitlock, Kathleen Brace, Mitchell Ryan, Cassie Mosher, Ayden Danovaro, and Robert Koroluck (the incidental Voice of God). These actors appear in the program under their own names because they played so many different parts. Then there was Tyler Jerome Thompson as Jesus. He impressed me throughout with the earnestness with which he undertook his pivotal role.

What was most notable about this cast, though, was the extraordinary energy they put out. It felt like they were always in motion, always emoting, most often expressing enthusiasm and great joy, and that was first clearly evident in “Save the People.” Add to this the colorful, eclectic costumes (which seemed to be frequently changed), and the show amounted to a continuous spectacle. At one point in my notes I called it “organized craziness.” At another point I wrote: “These people have no inhibitions.”

I was constantly asking myself what I thought about this show’s presentation of religious teachings that have been such a key part of my life. Was it irreverent? Or was it simply effective in bringing home the essence of those teachings in perhaps a more accessible way than is provided by Biblical prose? For example, Jesus was frequently doing magic tricks. And John the Baptist baptized Jesus with a sponge. There was nothing casual or disrespectful in the way the latter was done, but it did provide food for thought (about the essence of the deed), and perhaps that has been the point of this show since it was first conceived.

I presume it was dramatist John-Michael Tebelak’s original concept, but it seemed strange to me to combine Jesus’ temptations with his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane or to have the latter move so directly to the crucifixion. I didn’t note them all, but it seemed that there were many liberties taken with the sequence, context or order of events portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew. There were other kinds of surprises, like the seriousness in the Last Supper scene which remarkably was preceded by Jesus (Tyler Jerome Thompson) intoning in Hebrew. More often than not I was impressed with the clever ways in which Biblical teachings were presented such as the way the Beatitudes were covered. Eventually, the persistent creativity of director, actors, musicians, and choreographer sold me on this concept, this way of popularizing religion.

The ministry of Jesus was fundamentally serious, of course, but there were humorous moments (particularly in those times when the audience was involved or when there were contemporary references), and there were frequent little jokes and sight gags. And as for audience involvement, you can forget about the “fourth wall” of traditional drama. Often the dancing, singing cast members worked their way into the audience, and there was one song when the audience was urged to clap in time to the music. Volunteers were harvested from the audience for various on-stage interactions with the actors, and at one point Jesus took a selfie with an audience member. I myself was vamped by Mary Magdalene.

As I write this, Godspell is half way through its brief run. If you have the opportunity, you should take in this show. These people have put their collective talents but mostly their hearts into creating a memorable and unique theatrical experience.

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