It's `Godspell' revisited

Celebration: The flower power-era show, presented by Toby's Dinner Theatre in 1979, is back to mark the theater's 25th anniversary.


Howard Live

August 26, 2004|By William Hyder | William Hyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was a time of hippies, flower children and long hair - a naive, optimistic age in which everything seemed easy, possible and within reach.

In 1971, during the flower power era, Godspell opened off Broadway. Based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, it presented a folksy Jesus relating parables and teaching moral lessons against a background of modern music and dance.

The show gave all its characters contemporary speech and sensibilities, and avoided any deep questions of theology or philosophy. It caught the spirit of its time so well that it moved to an uptown theater and ran until 1977.

Godspell (book by John-Michael Tebelak, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz) was the first show presented by Toby's Dinner Theatre in 1979, and it is being offered again to celebrate the theater's 25th anniversary.

The show uses a theatrical production as an allegory for the biblical narrative of Jesus' ministry. As Act I begins, a cast of actors comes offstage after a performance, dissatisfied and confused. Each has his or her idea of what the show means and how to perform it. A new director comes on board and tries to persuade them to follow his way.

Soon the Bible story takes over. The director is now Jesus, and the actors are the people of the Holy Land. They are a motley crowd holding varying beliefs, and Jesus tries, with some success, to unify them by recounting parables. (A few of the parables - the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the beggar Lazarus - are drawn not from Matthew but from the Gospel of St. Luke.) The show includes a lot of comedy, but things get more serious in Act II. Jesus has gained a following and claims to be the Son of God. Challenged by the legal and religious authorities, he charges them with being materialists and power seekers. The conflict leads inevitably to the tragic climax recorded in the Gospel, which is portrayed with proper seriousness.

Rob McQuay, as Jesus, has an amiable presence that turns commanding when the action calls for it. Russell Sunday moves easily through the diverse roles of John the Baptist, Judas and the Stage Manager.

The talented ensemble includes Felicia Curry, Janine Guilisano, LC Harden Jr., David James, Michael Kenny, Shawn Kettering, Channez McQuay, Tess Rohan and Jill Shullenbarger.

With detailed direction by Toby Orenstein and Ron McQuay and choreography by Ray Hatch, the performers are in motion every minute, moving through kaleidoscopic changes of stage picture, character and mood.

The set, designed by Thomas Bumblauskas, is simple but versatile. Four or five platforms are shifted into different configurations by the performers during the performance. The period of the original show is echoed by oversized flowers and graffiti reading PEACE.

Samn Huffer has designed colorful costumes in a contemporary style, from casual to funky.

Stephen Schwartz's music and lyrics are mostly in the standard Broadway vein, with touches of rock, gospel and folk music. At the top of the show, a production number, "Tower of Babble," effectively illustrates the confusion of a crowd of people with many points of view - a nice example of what in opera is called an "ensemble of perplexity."

The highlights of the score are the ballad "Day by Day" and a vaudeville-style double act, performed by Jesus and Judas, called "All for the Best."

Toby's Godspell is an updated version aimed at making the show more relevant today. The actors make references to Annie, The Music Man, The Wizard of Oz, television shows such as Family Feud and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, and TV commercials for cell phones ("Can you hear me now?") and auto insurance ("I just saved a lot of money ... ").

Local gags are thrown in, and the action is punctuated by a lot of incidental clowning and fleeting impressions of celebrities.

Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents "Godspell" through Sept. 26. Evenings: Doors open at 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. Matinees: Doors open at 10:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required. Information or reservations: 410-730-8311 or 800-888-6297.

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