“Godspell” at ACT-CT Has a Good Cast But Some Misguided Concept Decisions

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godspell 2 actBy Karen Isaacs

Just because you can do something, should you do it? Not necessarily.

Watching the “revised” version of Godspell now at ACT-CT in Ridgefield, through March 8, that question kept coming to me.

Artistic director Daniel C. Levine has decided that the 1970s musical by Stephen Schwartz needed “up-dating”. Apparently Schwartz allowed him to proceed. He shouldn’t have.

This is a classic musical about a group of younger people telling the stories of the Gospel. Act one is acting out the various Bible stories that most of us have learned: the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and others. Act two is focused more on the story of Jesus’ betrayal and the crucifixion.

Levine decided that the show needed a “frame” which is basically adding something that leads into show, often to either clarify or add a note of reality. The best example, which I thought worked, was the recent Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof which opened, not in turn-of-the 20th century Anateva, but with a 21st century man arriving with a guide book in hand looking around where the town had been. He takes off his coat and the musical begins. We assume he is a relative of Tevya.

Levine has opted to set the show in an abandoned large church which is about to be demolished so a luxury apartment building can be constructed.  But that isn’t the opening scene. The opening scene is a group of people, including children, sneaking into the abandoned church; as they hear people coming, they all hide.

Those arriving are apparently realtors and the building’s developer, looking over the space, making negative comments about the church, until they hear a sound, and the young people appear. Instead of these young people being the cast, the realtors all take off their coats and become the main performers.

The idea wasn’t bad (Sondheim used it in Follies), but it just went on too long. All of this adds about 10 minutes to the show.

Levine made other changes in dialogue and apparently Schwartz had rewritten some lyrics.

In the process of adding these “improvements,” in some ways the show has been diminished despite a good cast. At times it seems as though it is aiming to be a Forbidden Broadway spoof of other musicals with references in performance, tempos and approach to iconic musicals: Hamilton, Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera and others. Jesus actually refers to Hadestown. The downside of this, is the audience is reminded of what outstanding shows and productions are like. A Harvey Weinstein reference was just uncomfortable.

If you can get passed these missteps – and there are many more — you have a hardworking cast doing their best to give you the songs and dialogue of the original. Trent Saunders makes a fine Jesus with a voice and gentle manner. I would also single out Alex Lugo. One of the first and last voices you hear, is the pure soprano of Shaylen Harger; she has a small role but the simplicity and beauty of the few measures she sings solo, made me want to hear more.

The scenic design by Reid Thompson was outstanding; it featured stained glass, religious sculptures, vaulted ceilings and the sense of abandonment. Jack Mehler’s lighting design added to the mood. I’m not sure if sound designer John Salutz was at fault, but once again the ACT-CT sound blasted the audience. It needed to be turned down. While this is a partly rock show, it is also a folk music type of show.

If you love Godspell you should make an effort to see this production, despite its flaws.

For tickets visit ACT-CT.

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