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Godspell

The Paper Mill Playhouse offers a wonderfully theatrical production of the oft-revived musical by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak.

By New Jersey
Dan Kohler and Joshua Henry in Godspell(© Gerry Goodstein)
Dan Kohler and Joshua Henry in Godspell
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Godspell is the playground of musical theater. Actors, directors, and other interpretive artists love it because of the freedom it allows them in terms of production style, musical approach, and comic ad-libbing. Of course, such license can lead to an unwatchable show in the wrong hands. Fortunately, the new Paper Mill Playhouse staging is among the best of the best I've ever seen of the beloved Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak musical.

As originally conceived and presented more than 35 years ago, Godspell is the story of Jesus and his disciples as retold by a bunch of folks in circus-clown-like makeup and costumes. At Paper Mill, director Daniel Goldstein instead has chosen to let the show unfold as if on the basically bare stage of a theater that seems to be undergoing reconstruction. Accordingly, David Korins' minimalist set largely consists of scaffolding and some strung worklights; there's a wonderful effect towards the top of the show when John the Baptist uses water from a leak in the roof to baptize the disciples, and Jesus' crucifixion is handled in a way that's simple but striking.

The production is enhanced by Ben Stanton's expert lighting and Miranda Hoffman's highly creative costumes, masks, and puppets. (The Act II appearance of the huge, monster-like Pharisees is awesome.) Dan Knechtges' fabulously show-bizzy choreography incorporates everything from ballet positions to soft-shoe to jazz moves.

No matter who's on your creative team, there's little point in presenting Godspell unless you have an extraordinarily talented cast -- and Paper Mill does. Dan Kohler possesses the requisite warmth and sweetness for Jesus, along with a lovely lyric baritone, although he did sound vocally under the weather on opening night. (He had missed two preview performances.) As Judas/John the Baptist, Joshua Henry sings beautifully and neatly makes the tricky transition from Jesus' loyal friend to his cold-blooded betrayer in the second act.

The rest of the ensemble cast members are so good that they deserve individual mention. Uzo Aduba has the audience in stitches during Act I and breaks hearts in Act II with her soulful rendition of the one non-Schwartz song in the show: "By My Side," by Peggy Gordon and Jay Hamburger. Sarah Bolt is so funny and adorable that she even makes an impression with the throwaway number "Learn Your Lessons Well." Sara Chase raises the roof with "Bless the Lord, My Soul," and Robin De Jesus leads "We Beseech Thee" with great energy.

Patrick Heusinger manages to be simultaneously hilarious and sexy at several points during the proceedings. Anika Larsen offers a moving performance of the most famous song in the show, "Day by Day." Telly Leung, who has shone in the ensembles of several New York productions but whom I've never before heard sing an extended solo, does a beautiful job with "All Good Gifts." Julie Reiber has many good moments, though her ad libs in her solo number "Turn Back O Man" aren't especially amusing. (On opening night, she got the audience laughing during the song only when she vamped a little boy seated in the front row. That brought the house down.)

Loren Toolajian's musical direction is notable for the fact that, though the band arrangements are largely traditional -- with the nice addition of woodwinds and a cello -- the vocal arrangements are quite different from what you hear on the original cast recording or the 1972 movie soundtrack, and the ensemble sings more extensively. All of this is effective for the most part, but it has led to the one major misstep in the production. In order to allow the ensemble to join in the ineffably sad "On the Willows" near the end of the show, the disciples' goodbyes to Jesus have been staged in such a rushed manner that they seem perfunctory. As a result, what is usually the emotional climax of Godspell nearly goes for naught. (Perhaps to compensate, the cast members cry so much during the finale that they have trouble singing.) It's unfortunate that this stumble comes so near the end of the proceedings and mars slightly the impression made by this overall excellent, wonderfully theatrical production.


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