Ensemble shines in ‘colorful’ play

‘Energetic’ musical portrays parables based on the Bible

By Michael Santone, News Editor

A fun and colorful production by the drama department closes out the 2016-17 season with energetic acting and distinct vocals.

“Godspell,” directed by Kathryn G. McCarty with musical direction by Luis Zuniga and choreography by Latanya Tigner, is the sole musical of the season.

The production shines with an ensemble cast radiating infectious energy. The strongest parts of the show aren’t the individual performances, which range from good to OK.

The musical numbers and scenes that incorporate the entire cast and all their spontaneous actions are impressive.

“Godspell” will continue its run with shows Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the John and Jean Knox Center for the Performing Arts.

The musical, created in the 1970s by Stephen Schwartz, follows the teachings of Jesus Christ through familiar parables and catchy songs based on the Gospel of Matthew. The show is brought to life with a modern cast whose chemistry shines bright as they sing, dance and pull at the heartstrings.

Performing a musical with well-known and sensitive material can sometimes be hard to pull off, however this production keeps it powerful and yet light hearted.

The opening number, “Tower of Babble,” features different historical philosophers singing and screaming out their famous ideas, thoughts, and decisions as they congregated on stage.

They conclude the number intertwined with each other on two mini-yellow scaffoldings which make up part of the set.

The shouting match only increases in intensity, until Judas, played by Umi Grant, emerges to baptize the company while singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”

Grant’s portrayal of Judas is slick and cool, yet slightly reserved. Judas is a nice contrast from the rest of the bubbly cast who bounce off stage after being baptized.

The opening of the show struggles to bring a high level of energy. Part of the reason for this is that the musical accompaniment is prerecorded and not live instrumentation.

The accompaniment feels dull for the opening numbers and the cast’s singing matched the low energy.

Judas, now all alone, gives a sermon to the audience before Jesus, played by Xavier Johnson, emerges and watches with intrigue. Johnson’s portrayal of Jesus is charming and charismatic.

Jesus sings the third number in the show, “Save the People,” and includes the rest of the company, dressed in brightly colored circus-themed attire, who enthusiastically pour back into the theater to sing with Jesus.

The energy of the show picks up during “Save the People” and carries on for the rest of the show.

Each parable played out by the cast, including “the widow and judge,” “Pharisee and the tax gatherer” and “ungrateful servant” are all injected with a bit of humor and acted out extremely well by the cast.

Some of the language is changed to make it more palatable for today’s audiences, which not only makes the show relatable, but also creates an inclusive atmosphere.

It is this connection and passion that stands out and makes the production all that more enjoyable to watch.

The joyous earworm “Day by Day,” sung by Elizabeth Martinie, encapsulates the show and is sung with such admiration that can be felt through the entire theater.

Another highlight of the first act is “All for the Best.” Jesus and Judas perform an upbeat vaudevillian duet which culminates with both singing their parts at the same time as the company joins in to dance and sing.

This was by far one of the best numbers of the show, as lighthearted fun is mixed with over the top interactions and great music.

“Learn Your Lessons Well” is a short number performed by Kamaria McKinney in a jazzy tune that is a silly time.

“O Bless the Lord” and “All Good Gifts” are two solid songs in the second act performed by Ashley Watts and Sean Teal, respectively.

Watts and Martinie shined throughout the show with their strong acting and vocal performances.

The first act concludes with “Light of the World,” performed by Victor Sanchez, whose hilarious and over the top acting soaks up much of the spotlight.

Occasionally, Sanchez overacts and upstages other actors who should have had the focus.

The second act’s tone is more somber as the betrayal of Jesus by Judas becomes more apparent.

“Turn Back, O Man” opens act two with a sultry number performed by Rachel Garza, who romps around with a clear inspiration from Mae West. Garza does a great job at being sensual as she travels around the audience with a feather boa.

During another parable, a woman is accused of adultery and is about to be stoned to death. Jesus’ response is, “He who is faultless shall cast the first stone.”

The company, who are all ready to throw a stone, retreat as Jesus explains to the women that she may go but not to sin again. As he begins walking away, the woman, played by Irena Miles, asks Jesus to stay, singing “By My Side,” performed alongside Jasmine Manahan.

The gripping and heartwarming ode is performed to perfection. The combination of Miles’ and Manahan’s voices fill the song with meaning and emotion.

It is also during this song that Judas foretells his betrayal of Jesus in a hair-raising moment that is so raw, to the instrumental backdrop of “By My Side.”

“We Beseech Thee” is the only happy song of the second act, which sends the company into a swirl of dance and celebration.

This song, performed by Johnson Nguyen, is a disappointing moment.

Nguyen doesn’t bring much energy to the song, which should be a high point before the closing scenes bring down an emotional weight.

Nguyen’s singing is quiet and the staging of the number could have been more dynamic and utilized the yellow scaffolding more.

As the second act closes, the heart-wrenching “On the Willows,” performed by Ashley Watts and Martinie, is a tear jerker as everyone says their own special goodbyes to Jesus.

“On the Willows” leads into the “Finale” in which Johnson is crucified on the yellow scaffoldings.

This scene is the most overwhelming part of the musical and Johnson does a terrific job of showing the emotions on his face, as he is being crucified.

“Godspell” is captivating when it needs to be, but also is funny, which contrasts well with the moments things get serious.

Every member of the cast is talented and as an ensemble they are unstoppable.

Anyone looking for an entertaining escape coupled with a message of good faith will not be disappointed with this production of “Godspell.”