Aspects of Godspell
Michael Portantiere reviews two new recordings of Stephen Schwartz's evergreen rock musical, Godspell.
A perennial on the stock, community, and school theater level, Godspell (music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, original book by John-Michael Tebelak) has seemed even more present in 2000-2001 via two high-profile, professional productions. Cast recordings of both of these have recently been released, and together they demonstrate just how far producers and directors--and musical directors!--should go in updating classic shows in revival.
From Fynsworth Alley comes what is billed as "The 2000 Off-Broadway Cast Recording" of Godspell. This is the fabulously well-sung, hilariously funny, deeply moving production that started out Off-Off Broadway under the aegis of a group called the Third Eye Repertory and later had an Off-Broadway run in the Theater at Saint Peter's Church. The CD is a wonderful memento of a theatrical happening that should still be happening; the show itself boasted a wonderful cast, intelligent direction by Shawn Rozsa, and sensitive yet creative musical direction by Dan Schachner.
The cast is just about perfect. Barrett Foa's appealing, extraordinarily youthful-sounding voice brings a wonderful dimension to the role of Jesus; though he wasn't 100% vocally consistent in the three performances of Godspell that this reviewer attended, he's in top form on the recording. As Judas/John the Baptist, Will Erat shows that he's one of those rare individuals who's able to adapt a full, rounded, legit voice to pop/rock music without sounding ridiculous. (Erat was wisely handed the hauntingly beautiful "On the Willows" to sing in this production, aside from the character's usual songs.) Though it's difficult to single out other highlights, Eliseo Roman deserves a special nod for his magnificent rendition of "All Good Gifts." Catherine Carpenter's "Day by Day" is warm and sincere, Capathia Jenkins' "Turn Back, O Man" is almost as much fun as it was in the theater, and Shoshana Bean's "Bless the Lord" is a roof-raiser. (Note to Paper Mill Playhouse attendees: This recording offers an aural teaser of Leslie Kritzer, who'll be playing Fanny Brice in the Playhouse's upcoming production of Funny Girl. You can hear her singing "Learn Your Lessons Well" here.)
Less successful overall as a recorded statement of Godspell is DRG's "2001 National Touring Cast Recording." Others have already pointed out that, while the New York production cited above hewed quite closely to the original in its guitar- and piano-based accompaniment, there's a whole lotta synth going on in the touring version. Such an approach is not totally ill-advised; it's appropriate, for example, in the opening "Tower of Babble" ensemble. But it does become tiresome after awhile, causing one to yearn for a more natural, more melodious sound. In a TheaterMania interview, Scott Schwartz--son of Stephen Schwartz, and director of this touring production--cited Jewel, Alanis Morissette, and Dave Matthews as examples of the alternative rock and folk rock artists whose sounds were meant to be evoked by Alex Lacamoire's new orchestrations and arrangements for this Godspell. Whether or not this goal was achieved, and whether or not the score is better for it, is a matter of opinion.
Generally speaking, the vocals here are less persuasive than those on the Fynsworth Alley recording. Joe Carney displays a strong, sexy voice as Jesus, but he can't seem to find the beat at the top of "Save the People" and is way off pitch in "Alas for You"--though, in his defense, the raucous, dissonant accompaniment to the latter number would make it hard for almost any singer to hit the right notes. Michael Yuen is an appealing if light-voiced Judas/John the Baptist, but Sal Sabella's crooning approach to "All Good Gifts" will surely not be to everyone's taste. One of the best cuts on the disc is a terrific, up-tempo version of "Beautiful City"--though, here again, Carney falls prey to pitch problems. Ditto Jessica Carter on "Turn Back, O Man"--and she sings "whose head is crowned with flames" rather than "...flame," so the word doesn't properly rhyme with "proclaim."
If you're a die-hard aficionado of Godspell, you'll want to add both of these new CDs to your library. But those of you who are less than obsessive about the show and/or are on a budget should go with Fynsworth.