Sunday, September 14, 2014

theatre review GODSPELL, Mesa Encore Theatre, September 11

To read my Talkin' Broadway review of Godspell at Mesa Encore Theatre just click on this link.

Rudy Ramirez and Kyle Bennett

Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak's hit 1971 musical Godspell has some of the most instantly recognizable songs from a musical. If you say the name of the show to anyone they will most likely start singing "Day by Day" to you. Several of Schwartz' songs became pop hits and, based on the biblical characters and religious themes in the show, made their way into church services across the country. Mesa Encore Theatre's current production is energetic, with a young, talented cast led by the animated and personable Rudy Ramirez.

Godspell is loosely based on the gospels of Matthew and Luke, so it follows the life and teachings of Jesus, but in an abstract and playful way. It is part Sunday school class, part religious celebration with a group of performers acting out various parables that teach moral lessons. While it may be grounded in Christianity, it has a universal appeal that attempts to transcend one religion, form a strong sense of a community, and teach us all lessons about how to better treat our fellow man. And if the lessons are a bit redundant, there is that awesome score by Schwartz to break up and assist the teachings and help in taking us along on the journey.

Updated somewhat from the original version, and including the song "Beautiful City" written for the 1973 film adaptation, MET's production also incorporates a few contemporary references, which add a modern touch to the proceedings and gives the whole show a sense of timelessness. It is still a very heavy-handed "religious" experience, and the continual slew of parables gets a bit tiring, especially by the second act, which is a bit abrupt in how it rather quickly goes from the fun and games of act one to Judas' betrayal, the crucifixion, and then the finale. But it is heartfelt, engaging and hopeful, though to the non-religious minded it could prove a trying evening in the theatre.

Director Brian Foley has assembled a gifted multicultural cast, including many in their teens and early twenties. Rudy Ramirez is giving an exceptional take on Jesus. He is playful and charismatic with an effective use of accents and impressions to portray the various characters in the parables. He also has an excellent connection with the cast, rich vocal skills; the end result is an especially appealing performance. Likewise, Kyle Bennett is just as winning as Judas. His strong, clear voice and excellent diction, especially during the fast moving lyrics of "All for the Best," make the most of his songs and he embodies the part with a seriousness that is especially moving during "On the Willows," which is nicely sung from the second level balcony over the audience. He also plays the guitar on a few songs where he isn't the main singer, which makes Judas instantly connected with the other performers.

Kyle Bennett and the cast
The remainder of the cast is made up of younger performers and, though a couple of them were a bit vocally challenged on some of the score's more sustained high notes at the performance I attended, they all give upbeat, appealing performances. I especially liked the sweet faced and sweet voiced Jessica Webb who sings a rousing "O Bless the Lord My Soul," Marjani Hing-Glover's earthy, grounded version of "By My Side," and Destiny Walsh's rich and touching "Day by Day." Also, Vinny Chavez has a great presence with assured singing and dancing.

Starting the show with modern street noises of police sirens and traffic sounds and placing the cast in the audience during the opening sequence, director Foley grounds the show in modern times and instantly pulls us into the show. His staging makes good use of the entire stage and the auditorium and his choreography is varied and upbeat. Foley also provides the prop design and with Chris Peterson the simple scenic design; all are original in how they use various sizes of white paper for sets and props—even having the character of Abraham wearing a white paper beard. The white element also works well in Mickey and Rhea Courtney's costume designs. While the company first appears in dark clothing, they change into simple but varied white outfits once Jesus enters, then slowly change into bright outfits of varying colors as the cast learns their lessons. Collin Mulligan's lighting design is impressive, especially with the use of shadows for the more dramatic scenes, and Canyon Stewart's sound design provides clear vocals throughout.

The teaching of simple lessons, change and the idea of hope is the driving message of Godspell. Even with the shortcomings of the show, with a winning cast, particularly two great performances from Ramirez and Bennett, and Schwartz' great infectious score, MET's take on Godspell is quite enjoyable. While the non-religious might find it quite boring and even somewhat manipulative, fans of the musical and/or the teachings of the gospels, are definitely in for a treat.

Godspell runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through September 21st, 2014, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or

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