By Lauren Van Hemert
There is some joyful noise coming from Pullen Park this month. That’s because the Theatre in the Park production of Godspell, which opened last weekend, is in a word, heavenly.
Originally produced off-Broadway at The Cherry Lane Theatre in 1971, the show moved uptown and was later nominated for a Tony Award for Best Original Score in 1977. The Broadway revival opened at Circle in the Square in 2011. The Theatre in the Park production is based on the licensed 2012 revised version.
As far as the plot goes, or lack thereof, the book is just okay. Jesus teaches (sometimes preaches) the parables. Judas rebuffs. Everybody sings.
The show opens with the Tower of Babble, a number omitted in many productions. This prologue is followed by Freddy Perkins’ rousing rendition of Prepare Ye which sets the tone for the rest of the show. What follows is a series of lessons, stories, vignettes, if you will, led faultlessly, one-by-one, by each member of the cast. The through line here, if there is one, is the relationship between John the Baptist/Judas, played by Perkins and Jesus, played by Nehemiah Lawson. And the pair are just divine in their respective roles without succumbing to caricature or convention.
Lawson’s portrayal of Jesus is controlled, understated, and polished. He’s thoughtful, methodical, and well-paced in his delivery in a way that is simply captivating. And his rendition of Beautiful City is flawless.
Perkins too is a versatile performer. In fact, the second act opens with Perkins at the piano, reprising the song Learn Your Lessons Well along with Lauren Bamford and Rebecca Holland. His headstrong portrayal of Judas is unyielding, assertive, and portentous, a sharp contrast to Lawson’s Jesus, which makes the rising tension between them palpable. Physically he is also menacing, a testament to Kahei Shum McRae’s effective costume design.
Director Jesse Gephart’s clearsighted, contemporary take on Godspell errs more on the side of bohemian Rent than traveling circus, which is a good thing. The show is also teeming with modern-day and pop culture references, including a nod to the sitcom Friends, the Kardashians, and even Michael Cohen, which makes it feel current.
In addition, Diane Petteway’s masterful music direction is superb, as evident by the electrifying ensemble numbers, of which there are plenty. And Eric Alexander Collins’ effective sound design keeps the band and percussion at bay as to not muffle or overshadow the onstage performances.
Ultimately what makes this production of Godspell praiseworthy are the musical numbers. And if Stephen Schwartz’s infectious score alone doesn’t make a believer out of you, then the communal spirit radiating from the array of talent cast in this show surely will.
Godspell runs through April 28th at Theatre in the Park. For more information visit: