More so than most musicals, Godspell is a production that is dependent on a director behind the scenes not only able to guide its ensemble through the paces of its familiar folk score, but also one able to center the piece and find its own universe. In his just-opened take of the 1971 Stephen Schwartz musical at Stage Door Players, director Brian Clowdus has given the show his own trademark spin. It can be a little too busy, too contemporary for its own good, but the music more than atones.
Running through June 8 at Stage Door Players, this version of Godspell is a new one that opened on Broadway in 2011 that includes fresher references and a more interactive, contemporary feel, including a rap number. It ran for nearly a year with a hip, young cast that originally included Weeds’ Hunter Parrish.
The musical is basically a series of parables based on the Gospel of Matthew. Jeremiah Parker Hobbs stars as Jesus while Dan Ford doubles as John the Baptist and Judas. The rest of the cast is Tierra Porter, Daniel Pino, Daniel Burns, Caitlin Smith, Courtney Godwin, Robert Mitchel Owenby, Laura Floyd and Randi Garza. They are identified by their own names.
Anyone who saw last season’s Hair at Clowdus’ Serenbe Playhouse knows that he can shake up a musical. What Clowdus does here is shift an often stodgy piece in a new direction. He has transported a musical with an unspecified locale into an amusement park setting, one left abandoned of hope and faith. Chuck Welcome’s set — with a decaying carousel at the back of the house — sets the tone quite ably, joyously abetted by Abby Parker’s costumes.
The 10 actors are onstage the entire time, joined by a band that includes Chip Coursey, Eddy Cowley, Taylor Washington and Nick Silvestri, the production’s music director.
I’ve never been an enormous fan of Godspell, but this version has an energy and a verve that is infectious. Bubba Carr, a frequent collaborator with Clowdus, choreographs, and he and Clowdus create some wonderfully inventive moments. The 40-year-old score absolutely holds up. One of the highlights — almost to be expected — is a rowdy company rendition of “Day By Day.” (Purists will note that the second-act reprise of the number has been deep-sixed here for “Beautiful City.”) Two other numbers that stick out are “All for the Best,” sung by Hobbs and Ford, and the company’s “We Beseech Thee,” a lighter number that is fairly gonzo here.
Like Hair, this has a swell ensemble of musical performers who sing wonderfully together and independently. There isn’t a weak presence to be found. Like that show, this is likely to be one of the most talked about and debated productions of the season. Yet its overreaching pulse creates some problems. A few numbers in the first act are so frenzied they twirl almost out of control. Godspell is essentially a simple story, one seeped in belief and spirituality, and the showier aspects of this version detract from that. It also drowns out much of the emotion. When Clowdus slows down, calms down his cast and lets the music speak — such as in Burns’ beautifully done “All Good Gifts” — the musical is at its best.
Hobbs has had a terrific run of late. Besides this, he’s been seen in Hair, Actor’s Express’ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Aurora Theatre’s The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown. He has turned into one of the most dependable musical performers in the area. Yet this version of Godspell makes him more of an ensemble player than someone who seems capable of waking up and saving his disciples. And Godspell really depends on that transformative spirit. Hobbs gets by on his likability and range, though, and his crucifixion scene is harrowing and believable.
It’s probably not a stretch to say that this is one of the boldest shows Stage Door has staged. Technically and musically, it’s a triumph. Clowdus has breathed new life into this. Purists might not care for some of the paths Clowdus and the new version of Godspell take, but adventurous theatergoers — especially those who love musical theater — should be satisfied overall.