`Godspell' casts fun spell

Review: Director Todd Pearthree updates the 1971 musical with spirit and imagination

it's now at the Maryland Arts Festival

Theater

July 05, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

With its flower-power aura and hippie-esque cast, the 1971 musical, "Godspell," might seem retro, but director/choreographer Todd Pearthree imbues it with new life at Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival.

A retelling of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, with a book by John-Michael Tebelak and score by Stephen Schwartz, the show originally sported a clown/flower-child motif and a Jesus decked out in a Superman shirt.

Pearthree does away with that, inserting his own updated references, which, together with the exuberance of the youthful performers, cast a fun-filled spell on "Godspell."

One of Pearthree's first imaginative touches comes in the early scene of the baptism of Jesus (Sean Patrick Kennedy), in which water is represented by long blue streamers in a red plastic bucket. (The bucket re-surfaces later in a parable involving "kicking the bucket.")

Far from portraying Jesus as Superman, costume designer Shannon Maddox dresses Kennedy's boyish Jesus in all gray. In contrast to the Crayola-colored costumes of the chorus, this Jesus is the understated voice of reason.

Pearthree's cleverest number is "All for the Best," in which he makes use of the open-backed stairway in designer Thom Bumblauskas' minimalist white set. Led by Kennedy and Sean Rivers on top of the stairs, the chorus crouches behind the steps and manipulates hand-held shoes that "dance" on the rungs.

The updating is peppered throughout the production and takes the form of references to Bill Cosby, Monica Lewinsky, "Evita," Jerry Springer, Ross Perot, etc. You have to pay close attention to catch all the interpolations.

The cast is clearly having a ball in this lively production. "Godspell" may not be a masterpiece -- the only memorable song is "Day by Day," and the high spirits of the first act understandably slacken in the second -- but Pearthree's interpretation earns several hosannas.

Show times at Towson University's Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre, Osler and Cross Campus drives, are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. July 11 (no performance July 8), through July 24. Tickets are $19 and $21. Call 410-830-2787.

Gentle `Snow'

Gordon Porterfield's "Snow," the latest Baltimore Playwrights Festival offering, is a tender, albeit graphic, romance between two twentysomething folks who seem to have little in common.

Claire is a former novitiate who works as an assistant librarian. Cheerful and well-adjusted, her only shortcoming is her non-stop chatter. "I talk a lot. It's my tragic flaw," she says at one point.

Stephen, on the other hand, is a loner who has spent much of his life in mental institutions. Unlike Courtney Bell's sunny Claire, Ben Thomas' Stephen is perpetually glum, troubled and relatively taciturn.

The play begins with Claire throwing herself at reluctant Stephen after eking out an invitation to his furnished room on a snowy night. In the course of the evening, both of these innocent souls unburden their hearts as they tell their life stories.

Though long-winded, Porterfield is skilled at writing conversation and developing characters. And, under Lance Lewman's sensitive direction at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, both actors adeptly handle the script's lengthy monologues.

Thomas, in particular, is riveting as he delivers a harrowing account of his parents' death.

Although the play contains nudity and sexual content, these elements are tastefully staged. What's objectionable is the simplistic ending, with its suggestions that: 1) love conquers everything, and 2) a good woman is all it takes to cure a severely emotionally disturbed man.

Ending the play on a note of hope is logical, touching, even welcome. But in making what feels like a giant leap to happily-ever-after, Porterfield turns this admirable, realistic drama into something resembling a fairy tale.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays, through July 18. Tickets are $10 and $11. Call 410-276-7837.

Readings at AXIS

AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, is holding two staged readings: Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit," directed by Alex Willis, Thursday-Saturday, and Kimberley Lynne's "The Last Battle of the American Revolution," directed by Linda Chambers, July 15-17. Each reading begins at 8 p.m. and is followed by a discussion. Admission is free. Call 410-243-5237.

The theater's two-day June fund-raiser, starring the flamboyant 90-year-old Quentin Crisp, raised $12,000, according to producing director Jon Lipitz. On June 19, Crisp entertained 219 theatergoers at Center Stage, discussing the subject of style for 45 minutes, then answering questions for more than an hour. The next day, an audience of 40 had high tea with Crisp at AXIS.

"We got a lot of people who had never been to the theater before, but came because of Mr. Crisp, and we've already gotten several new subscribers out of it," Lipitz said.

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