WESTMINSTER — No production of the popular musical "Godspell" can succeed without a childlike sense of wonder and the accompanying ebullient enthusiasmof the young. The Western Maryland College Theatre production has both.
"Godspell," written 21 years ago by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Trebelak, is based on the Gospel of St. Matthew and presentedin the "chamber theater" mode so popular in the 1970s. Chamber theater refers to the staging of narrative prose that depends on improvisation and inventive interpretation to release the literature's meanings and power.
The creativity, inventiveness and energy of director Rob McQuay and his performers made last weekend's show a memorable, nearly terrific experience.
McQuay is no stranger to Westminster audiences, having appeared in many productions while an undergraduate at WMC. In 1981, he played the role of Jesus in "Godspell" during Theatre on the Hill's first season. In 1988, he returned to direct the summer production of "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." He has been a popular actor in area dinner theaters.
Each of the 12 student performers is a treasure. Each has at least one moment of real depth and brilliance. And while some sing or dance better than others, not one can be faulted for a lack of investment in what he or she is doing ora lack of understanding of moment-by-moment motivation.
The ensemble is made up of Matt Bayley, David Britt, Chrisy Covell, Scott Grocki, Pam Kraemer, Dimitrios Lambros, Kellee Maginness, R. J. Measday, Michela Patterson, Todd Robb, Rock Reiser and Lea Stanley.
While it may be unfair to refer to them individually, one cannot ignore the consistently strong dancing of Maginness, the rapping of Grocki, Reiser's effectively threatening Judas, Stanley's poignant rendering of "Day by Day," and the maturation of Covell into a strong, effective stage presence.
Measday's sultry and seductive "Turn Back, Oh Man" was quite a departure from the original rendition by Sonia Manzano.
Conductor Margaret Boudreaux and choreographer Billie Burke both contribute strongly to the success of this production.
The band -- Steve Zumbrun, Mary Ann Leckron, Derek Day, Henry Reiff and Mark Mills-- is effervescent and playful. Only in "All for the Best" does it overwhelm the singers. Lavaliere microphones, used at other times in the production, would have been appropriate for the singers then.
Some of the elements of the production added nothing or served only tobewilder. The decision to treat the play as an acting class with Jesus as the teacher simply had nothing to do with the performance or its beauty.
Having each actor in the introduction carry a blow-up ofa famous movie star, while it underscored the theatrical concept that "all the world's a stage," again, added nothing.
One very positive aspect of this production was to play the parables within the context of popular television shows, thus contemporizing the biblical materials. This was very evocative and often amusing except when the characters and events on "Gilligan's Island" overwhelmed the parable of the prodigal son.
Ira Domser's set opened the theater to the back wall and effectively included mobile costume racks, prop boxes and other accouterments of the theater. Disappointing was the lack of use of the fascinating "Towers of Babel" made of what looked like stacked boxes that would eventually come apart and become props. All they didwas serve as background and an eventually mundane representation of the cross.
Scott Grocki's and the ensemble's rendition of "We Beseech Thee" was the high point of the evening. Everything thereafter paled by comparison, and the important scenes of The Last Supper, Gethsemane and Golgotha were pale and anticlimactic.
Part of the problem was unimaginative staging, but the major factor was the way in which Jesus was played by David Britt. Instead of gentle, he was passive.Instead of a humanist, he was only a pedagogue. "I am filled with grief" sounded no more emotional than "Have a nice day."
There are opportunities for the audience to sympathize and empathize fully with his plight, but not in this production. If we don't feel for him in life, we cannot in death. And in this play feeling is obligatory.
The meek may inherit the earth, but they can't carry a show.
That aside, if you have never seen "Godspell," this is a terrific opportunity to see it done well.
The Western Maryland College Theatre production of "Godspell" runs at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday in Alumni Hall at Western Maryland College in Westminster.