Religious followers take things “day by day” in Olney Theatre Center’s reimagination of the popular Stephen Schwartz musical.

The cast of Godspell, directed by Jason King Jones, at Olney Theatre Center.
The cast of Godspell, directed by Jason King Jones, at Olney Theatre Center.
(© Stan Barouh)

A new interpretation of Godspell kicked off Olney Theatre Center's 77th season, making John-Michael Tebelak's book and Stephen Schwartz' lyrics seem as timely today as it did when it first premiered on Broadway in 1971. Fast moving, fun and full of audience interaction, director Jason King Jones takes a more uplifting approach to the Gospel of Matthew than previous Godspell incarnations, and the result is akin to something heavenly.

The musical follows a collection of "new-age hippies" brought to some sort of religious camp to follow the leadership of the man they call Jesus (a charismatic Jordan Coughtry). Through scripture parables he teaches them about right and wrong — naturally done through song. The show is similar in spirit to Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Rent, only a lot more fun, and interestingly not as sacrilegious or blasphemous as some other religious-minded plays.

Godspell is updated with a collection of 20th-century pop-culture references and 21st century technology, opening with the "disciples" on cell phones before setting in motion a simpler, more face-to-face communal time that rings true throughout the play. The festive atmosphere includes Coughtry channeling his best Richard Dawson and hosting Pharisee Feudas (Family Feud) complete with audience participation; a scripture version of The Dating Game; and a look at Hell seen through the eyes of a disciple who must listen to "Let It Go" over and over again.

Coughtry is electric onstage. He is a commanding presence, whether being funny or serious, and his version of "Beautiful City" is a highlight of the show. Rachel Zampelli, who wowed as Kate Monster in Olney's Avenue Q last winter, is equally impressive in the dual roles of John the Baptist and Judas, parts normally played by a man. She tackles the joyfulness of "Prepare Ye" and the despair of "On the Willows" with equal aplomb.

As Jesus' stories and lessons change, a new performer takes the lead and the eight additional cast members each have the opportunity to show off their vocal chops. Allie Parris does a stunning version of "Day by Day," while Nova Y. Payton, Christopher Mueller, and Michael J. Manwaring combine great comic timing with high-energy performances.

Anytime a real red Ford pickup truck is used on a set, you know you're in for something special, and set designer Paige A. Hathaway is credited with the show's great physical creative elements. The cast even enlists audience members to help decorate the rest of the theater at intermission, which adds to the fun ambience of the production. Additionally, costume designer Ivania Stack utilized colorful clothes that add to the vibrancy of the production. A six-piece band is on display throughout the show rising on scaffolding above the action, and the orchestra was in fine form.

Even when the show starts to get a little somber with the tale of the Last Supper and the consequences that follow Jesus, it never gets too depressing or serious, allowing for a little light to shine through.

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