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Gateway's acrobatic 'Godspell' impresses

Cast members of 'Godspell'
Cast members of 'Godspell'
Stephanie Whitmire

Gateway Performing Arts Studio's 2014 production of "Godspell"

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New theatre is always a good thing. Not too long ago, West Side Show Room performed their very first show, and we now have newcomer Gateway Performing Arts Studio presenting their first production. It is exciting to be in a time with new blood and new ideas. Gateway may be new, but if you’re familiar with local theatre, you’re also likely familiar with the brains behind this new company: the mother/son duo of Ellen and Andrew Mahan. No surprise then, that this talented team has put together a production that is ambitious, creative, and filled with some very, very talented performers.
Their production of Godspell has the subtitle “under the big top.” That pretty much tells you what to expect. It actually makes a good amount of sense to stage this show using the circus lens. Godspell has developed a reputation as being hippie-inspired, but its roots actually lie in the Coxian concept of Christ as the Harlequin, so this presentation is quite fitting.

This theme is committed to in every aspect. The colorful set evokes a circus atmosphere, as do the costumes. The cast starts in drab, hobo-esque attire, than changes to a myriad of colorful circus arcehtypes after their “baptism,” and each costume is quite in line with the various acts each individual performs (although the “strong man’s” cycling jersey sticks out a bit. Otherwise though, things are quite cohesive). A chorus of support vocalists also dons Zanni masks to portray the Pharisees, which is quite fitting considering the Zanni’s role in Commedia dell’arte as the fool and trickster. And then there are those stunts… indeed, those are where the cast truly shines and displays their talents. Throughout the whole show, the ensemble is tumbling, balancing, skipping rope, twirling hoops, and performing various traditional circus acts. It never comes across as tacked-on either, as the cast has legitimate talents in the feats they perform. In fact, you would see many of the same things here that you would at a Cirque du Soleil performance, albeit on a smaller scale. Quite ambitious, quite impressive, and probably worth the admission price to see the acrobatic prowess alone, which makes this production stand out.

Apart from the stunts integrated into the show, Godspell alternates between musical numbers with song and choreography and retellings of biblical parables. The cast is at their strongest during the musical pieces. They sound fantastic together vocally (although the mic volume is inconsistent from cast member to cast member), and the choreography is excellent. A particular musical highlight is Andrew Mahan’s haunting rendition of “All Good Gifts,” but most of the songs are incredible as well. The good thing about the cast the Mahans have assembled is that if someone isn’t fantastic at singing, they are an amazing dancer, and if they aren’t the best at dancing, their singing voice is excellent (and many of them are both!). The parable bits don’t draw you in quite as much all the time. Some of the characterizations used by the cast almost come across as “in-jokes,” perhaps more humorous if you know the actors personally. There are also a number of contemporary references that have been inserted in, including nods to things like Facebook, Donald Trump, and Frozen. At times it comes across as a little too “Hey, look at us! Look how modern we’re being!” A more classic appeal might have been better, but perhaps this is more a matter of opinion. Thankfully, this production’s Jesus has Don Stein in the role, and he is pretty much perfect. He makes a jovial, appealing Jesus, and has natural stage presence and charm. Once we’ve made it through the parables, the show does end with the crucifixion. However, it is presented a little differently here. The idea to stage it as a disappearing magic act is an exceedingly clever approach, and although the shift in focus to the resurrection over the cross itself is no doubt deliberate, it robs the emotion out of one of the most affecting scenes. Still, many of the previous music numbers will definitely touch you.

So should you see this show? The answer is without a doubt, yes. The scale at which Gateway tackles the play is something you likely haven’t seen before, and I guarantee you will leave impressed. It’s hard to believe one show can cram so much movement and spectacle into one performance. There are four performances left this weekend, including 2:00 matinees and 7:00 evening performances both today (Saturday) and Sunday. Get your tickets through their website. Gateway Performing Arts Studio has definitely impressed with their first production. Knowing the talent they have in charge, things are only going to get better.