Last weekend, Pacific Lutheran University’s School of Arts and Communication opened a production of “Godspell,” a combination of music, dance and performance art based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew. The show has been a staple of musical theater since its 1971 Off-Broadway beginnings. It has experienced a number or revivals both on and off Broadway. “Day by Day,” one of the songs in the show, was even a mainstream radio hit back in 1972.
The PLU production, co-directed by Jacob Viramontes and Jeff Clapp, is held in the intimate space of the university’s Studio Theater. All of the action – energetic dancing, configurations of bodies and performance of vignettes – takes place on and around a ramped dais that is set right in the midst of the audience.
Although the performance begins with the Baptism and ends with the Crucifixion (with a prologue and a finale), the show is not really a narrative of the Jesus story. A large portion of the show is derived from the parables and the teachings of Jesus. Other stories from the ministerial career of Jesus are illustrated, but not necessarily in chronological order.
Only three biblical characters are named: Jesus, John the Baptist and Judas. The rest of the cast takes on a multitude of shifting roles as they are featured in individual songs and act out the characters in the parables and the scenes from the gospel story. The brilliance of the cast, the skill of the musicians, and the staging, choreography, costuming and lighting all come together to make this a rock sold show.
In the starring role of Jesus, Blayne Fujita exhibits skilled acting and a vocal range that goes from quiet, silvery melodies, to jaunty vaudevillian jocularity to a spirited, angry spitting-out of lyrics (as when Jesus confronts his accusers).
Nick Hager’s portrayal of the ever-complex Judas is a delight to behold. His vocal skill is first encountered when he and Fujita perform “All for the Best,” but his acting comes forward with moving pathos during the course of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus.
The show is propelled along at a lively pace by the steady stream of delightful vocal performances by the members of the cast. Madisen Willis’s “Day by Day” is as cozy as a field of buttercups on a sunny day. Arika Matoba’s silky voice – with a brassy edge – is so good that one wishes her songs could last twice as long as they do.
After Lydia Bill, clad in a feather boa, rose to the pinnacle of the stage and belted out a sultry and sassy rendition of “Turn Back, O Man,” the audience responded with enthusiastic applause at what was one of the high points (literally and figuratively) of the whole show.
Contrasting such bold, brash moments are those like Emma Deloye’s performance of “By My Side,” in which the woman accused of adultery sings of her renewed life with a voice as sweet as honeyed cream.
Space limits preclude in-depth discussion of the entire cast, but all are great in this dynamic production: Ally Atwood, James Clifford, Gabby Dolan, Lexi Jason, Logan Kropp, Matthew Kusche, Ben Martin, Kathryn Wee and Luke Hartley.
The characters in the show start off in plain clothes (lots of denim), but soon dawn a colorful, rag-tag, motley set of fantastical outfits to mark the transformation that takes place once they begin their friendship with Jesus.
In the playbill, the directors assert that this is a show about a group of individuals that come together to form a community around a common spirituality. By presenting the gospel message in a non-churchy way (although “Godspell” had an influence in many churches), one is able to experience the Jesus story from a different angle. There are any number of striking moments that percolate up from the swirl of song, dance and pantomime. The lesson that the self-exalting will be humbled and the humble will be exalted, for example, seemed especially effective in speaking to this time in our political landscape.
“Godspell” is one of touchstones in our cultural landscape that is good to revisit from time to time. It is adaptable enough that it still able to deliver a punch and work as a vehicle for spiritual wisdom that has served as a guide to civilization for centuries. The PLU production of “Godspell” delivers the goods with pizzazz.
Remaining performances of the show take place March 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m. and March 19 at 2 p.m. For further information visit www.plu.edu/soac or call (253) 535-7150.