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Prepare Ye to be wowed! A superbly talented, youthful, exciting cast in Godspell

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Godspell the Musical

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GODSPELL - National Tour
Conceived and Originally Directed by John-Michael Tebelak

Book by John-Michael Tebelak
Music and New Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

Produced by Moonglow Entertainment in association with Drayton Entertainment

AT&T Performing Arts Center

Direction by David Hogan
Music Direction by Mark Payne
Choreography by Adele MacKenzie
Scenic Design by David Rogers
Lighting Design by Jeff Johnston-Collins
Original Costume Design by Miranda Hoffman
Stage Management by Paul Pembleton

CAST
Lisa Michelle Cornelius – Ensemble
Michael De Rose – Ensemble
David Cotton – Ensemble**
Stacy Kay – Ensemble
Ivan Lo – Ensemble
Alessia Lupiano – Ensemble
Rebecca McCauley – Ensemble
Janelle Murray – Ensemble
Graham Parkhurst – John/Judas
Jake Stern – Jesus

**Appeared in place of Michael Hogeveen at reviewed performance.

ORCHESTRA
John Yun - Conduction and Keyboard I
Alex Baerg – Guitar I
David “Dee” Klinger – Guitar II
Mark Laidman – Bass
Daniel Baerg – Drums/Percussion

Reviewed by Richard Blake

Prepare Ye to be wowed! A superbly talented, youthful, exciting cast rocks the house in the National Tour of Godspell, now playing at the Winspear Opera House.

This immensely successful rock opera needs little introduction, but when it was first produced on Broadway in 1971 it broke new ground in its stage treatment of the story of Jesus Christ. Based on the Gospel according to St Matthew, it deals with the last days of Jesus, and includes dramatized versions of several well-known parables. And yet it is something more, not necessarily a religious experience but a demonstration of joy, and a celebration of the family of man.

The show originated in 1970 as John-Michael Tebelak's master thesis project, under the direction of Lawrence Carra, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. 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, including much of the student cast, for a two week, ten performance run at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (aka Cafe la Mama), in New York City, opening February 24, 1971. 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.

It opened there on May 17, 1971, and has played in various touring companies and revivals many times since, including a 2011 revival which played on Broadway from October 13, 2011, to June 24, 2012. Several cast albums have been released over the years and one of its songs, "Day by Day" from the original cast album, reached #13 on the Billboard pop singles chart in the summer of 1972.

Full disclosure here... I came to see the musical on opening night with very high standards set. Godspell is one of my favorites and has been for years. I’ve directed it, performed in it as John/Judas, and have personally seen over 25 various productions over the years. So it was going to take a lot to impress me. This newly polished and refined national tour with an amazing fresh young cast did just that ... it impressed the heck out of me!

David Hogan has perfectly assembled a wonderful cast and on stage band to bring this rock opera to life.

Mr. Hogan is quoted as saying “Godspell is not just song and dance; it’s sketch comedy, so you have to look for a broader talent. But you can always teach someone something, so we have some performers who are beautiful singers, some who are extraordinary dancers and some who are great comedians. It all equates to a really strong company.”

That it does. Mr. Hogan’s company is very strong, and at no point are you disengaged from the show. This tour has unique staging featuring a large, raised, circular platform with upstage industrial risers, flanked by the band on either side. Mr. Hogan uses every square inch available to create some exciting pictures and moments. The entire cast is onstage almost every moment of the show and never once do they look out of place or uncomfortable. You can also see this talented director has pulled some elements from the recently closed Broadway revival, i.e. the pseudo “in-the-round” aspect, yet adds some of his own personal flair. He creates very poignant moments for some of the solos, then turns around and lets the stage explode with excitement. This highly creative director even incorporates the band into the production with more style than I’ve ever seen. They don’t just play splendidly, they act, sing, and even have their own “characters”, which are involved in many of the shows moments.

It’s well known that the book for Godspell is not very strong, as it is a myriad of individual elements only tied together by the “family of man”. The upside to the weaker book is that it allows each director add their own creative flair to it. This version is packed full of creativity and Mr. Hogan’s cast pulls it all off beautifully, making for a very unique and excellent production.

Musical direction by Mark Payne is stellar. In this new version, a lot of the score has been re-orchestrated and it works very well. Mr. Payne uses this new score, makes some wonderful choices with song presentations, and very obviously works each style to the strengths of his talent. Not one song seems pushed or strained; every full company song is well balanced, and the solos ... well, they’re spectacular! I knew this was going to be a stellar production vocally from the opening scene, the “Prologue”. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve seen this musical many times and have NEVER seen the opening number done completely a cappella. It starts the show off with a passion and strength I’ve never experienced, and showcases ever company members’ true vocal skill. Those familiar with the show know how difficult that scene is to perform as originally written, but Mr. Payne takes the talent before him and raises the vocal bar to extraordinary new heights.

Adele MacKenzie's choreography is new, exciting, youthful and energetic. Godspell is not a dance musical, but the dance elements in this version are very well designed and executed. Ms. MacKenzie obviously paid very close attention to the strengths of each performer and highlights those elements very well. She takes some very special moments in the show to new, choreographed levels of entertainment. The dancing never overpowers the performers, the scene or the story, and adds a beautiful depth to this new version.

Scenic design by David Rogers and Lighting design by Jeff Johnston-Collins are artistically and wonderfully paired for this touring production. The simple, yet stunningly beautiful set is comprised of a huge, circular, stained-glass window upstage that is mirrored on the stage proper with a raised round platform. The band sits and interacts with the actors on industrial-looking levels flanking the upstage and downstage stained- glass elements, rounding out the total picture. The design allows the action to flow well, is eye-catching, and allows the cast to really have some fun when they want to. The “baptism” of the cast during “Prepare Ye” is stunningly executed, and without giving away too much...yes, there is water involved and used spectacularly. The lighting design uses an enormous amount of fixed and automated instrumentation, creating bold color palettes that engulf the stage, paired with intimate and powerful isolations. Every color in the spectrum looks to be used in a rainbow of effects, creating wonderful visuals. The final scenes are a powerful testament to this designer’s true talent and are stunning.

This is one of the few musicals that feature a true ensemble of performers. And what an ensemble it is, with every member having a true star moment during the show.

Jake Stern, as Jesus, is a truly remarkable young talent. Yes folks, he just turned twenty-years-old a few weeks ago, and when originally cast in the role was only eighteen and still in twelfth grade! He weaves a new and delightfully fresh take on the role, taking you on a wonderful journey of song and story. His young age has absolutely NO bearing on his talent as he holds the show together with the strength, poise and artistry of a seasoned Broadway veteran. His vocals are exciting and jubilant when necessary, then hauntingly poignant. His rendition of “Beautiful City”, performed as a slow, heartfelt ballad with only a single piano accompaniment, brought chills as I listened. Every moment Mr. Stern is performing he is engaged in the character, his fellow cast and the audience. This young man will be one to watch as he shoots for and hits super-stardom one day. It will be a pleasure to say I saw him live on stage early in his career.

John the Baptist and Judas, played by Graham Parkhurst, stuns you with true performance excellence. He creates two very distinct characters, and with each one you are always engaged. From the moment he bursts onto the stage in the most engaging and uplifting rendition of “Prepare Ye” I’ve ever seen, you know this talented actor will be stunning throughout the show. He has a genuine feel about him while he’s performing that leads to some truly remarkable moments on stage. His energy is off the charts when it should be, then solemn and disturbing when his character is thrown into moral turbulence. He truly shines in his duet with Mr. Stern (Jesus) in the song “All for the Best”. The two present a wonderful vaudevillian-style rendition of the song with style and competence. There was an incident with a malfunctioning cane in the song (it didn’t quite fully lock-in), but neither Mr. Parkhurst nor Mr. Stern skipped a beat, smiled to each other and made it a part of the bit. This role is made for Mr. Parkhurst and he looks as if he’s enjoying every moment of it. Congratulations on an excellent job, very well done.

Rebecca McCauley’s rendition of “Day by Day”, notably the most recognized song of the show, is remarkable. She exudes passion and commitment during the song, only made better by her beautiful vocals. “Learn Your Lesson’s Well”, performed by Janelle Murray, is strikingly performed, going from operatic to rock in the same song, bringing roaring applause from the audience. Michael De Rose just rocks the Winspear with the Act I closer, "Light of the World”, exuding excitement and engaging the audience in a way I’ve never seen before in other productions. Alessia Lupiano has a sexy, sultry vocal quality and a bad girl comedic twist to "Turn Back, O Man", leaving one man in the audience blushing. The haunting "By My Side", led by Lisa Michelle Cornelius, is powerful and evokes true emotion from everyone on stage, and as I could tell from the people sitting around me, from the audience as well.

I have to give my highest critical acclaim to David Cotton in this performance. I had to do some quick verification and fact-checking to make sure he was who I believed was on stage opening night. He is listed as an understudy for Jesus/John the Baptist/Judas, but appeared onstage in the full ensemble cast. I was informed he stepped in for Michael Hogeveen, credited in the Playbill. You would never know he wasn’t the original actor cast in the role as he performed with the gusto of someone well-seasoned in the part. Even an occasional misstep in dance or location on stage never detracted from this young man’s stellar performance, especially when it came to his high energy solo in “We Beseech Thee”, bringing down the house! That is a true measure of talent, folks, and Mr. Cotton exemplified it to the highest degree!

Final mention and praise has to go to the band. They are precise, talented musicians who never overpower the cast, and deliver truly exciting moments to the show. I mentioned they are also actors and singers for this production, and they did it all to great success. The musical is scripted to involve the band on stage, but these guys take it to another, exciting level. “On the Willows” is one of the most beautiful songs in the show and it’s played and sung by the band. Between their powerful performance and the action on stage, there were very few dry eyes in the house ... including mine.

Sometimes it’s hard as a reviewer of the arts to see how any new revival, rendition and/or new genesis of an original work will play to other theatre patrons, especially, as in my case, you’re a lover of the show. However, it was a pleasure for me to hear people around me say they’d never seen the show but really enjoyed it, then to meet up with friends at intermission who are theatre “geeks” and had NEVER seen the show (you know who you are!) say how truly impressed and engaged they were with this version. It reaffirmed what I was already feeling... this is a spectacular new presentation of Godspell and you should take the opportunity to see it while it’s here for a limited time in Dallas.

Richard S. Blake
www.richardsblake.com
www.facebook.com/officialrichardslake
www.twitter.com/richardsblaketx

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