Godspell at Paper Wing

FB_IMG_1489189264474

By Philip Pearce

PAPER WING THEATRE’S new revival of Godspell has the spontaneous improv atmosphere of a piece that started life as a drama class project at Carnegie Mellon University before it morphed into a Broadway hit.

This was way back in an age of hippie communes, ashrams and the Jesus People, so John-Michael Tebelak’s words and Stephen Schwartz’s music configured Jesus as a loveable Aquarian peacenik. At Paper Wing, Director/Choreographer Kate Bradley Faber and principal actor/singer Jason Stout fall right into line with that amiable concept. Stout smiles a lot, sings pleasantly and playfully transforms a troupe of followers from a nice but disorganized rabble into a unified support team.

There are twelve of them, labeled “Disciples” in the program, but they don’t portray the apostolic dozen listed in Matthew’s Gospel. They play themselves and use their own names which, for the record, are Leia Dilley, Katie Day, Tiffany Jones, David Boehme, Xun Zhang, Alyssa D’Alessandro, Seaneen Scott Sullinger, Taylor Landess, Jay DeVine, Kelly Machado, Steven Howard and Felicia Afifi. Their job, like a good class of trainee actors, is to interpret the Master’s preaching and story-telling in Act 1 and enact his betrayal and crucifixion in Act 2. They do a great job, belting out their songs with a lot of chutzpa and offering lively and broadly comic takes on a succession of parables and sermons.

I was particularly taken with the way the show used audience participation. Spectators were nudged out of their seats to conduct on-stage games of charades and Pictionary based on pieces of scripture. A young man moved from the row in front of me to do an impressive unrehearsed job as the beggar hero in the parable of Dives and Lazarus.

The show is a lot of fun to watch, in spite of getting off to a rocky start. Paper Wing has elected to include a Prologue that is in the original script but is sometimes omitted in amateur productions. Cast members, taking on the personas and opinions of famous philosophers from Socrates to L. Ron Hubbard, step forward and pitch their respective ideologies, lucidly at first, but ultimately in a cacophony of ugly babble. Then the Baptist breaks through their noisy confusion with the clear and stirring “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” It’s an exciting idea, but the company and director, so on target for much of the evening, fail to meet the challenge. The philosophers’ complicated speeches are not projected well enough to be understood and their name tag necklaces would need to be twice as big to be read beyond the first row.

Informal comedy sequences are done with skill and wit. The more serious sections are less effective. The mass baptism, performed by Nicholas Kelley as an incisive baritone John the Baptist, is a jolly and joyous enough first act event. But the second act Eucharist, which should be a touching prologue to the Crucifixion, has Jesus and the disciples in a tight and awkward huddle struggling with some metal cups and an unwieldy pair of wine bottles.

There are glitches, but the company have a cohesion and a delight in what they are doing that makes this well worth a visit.