Review: Godspell by Mary Moody Northen Theatre, February 16 - 26, 2023
by Michael Meigs
First of all, the group photo in publicity for Godspell at St. Edward's University is misleading. Those young persons regard Che Greeno as the Jesus character with solemn expectancy, while he focuses serenely on the heavens. It could have been clipped from an earnest Sunday school magazine. It's static. The people are submissive. Greeno appears about ready to leave them all behind as he ascends to heaven.
I'll say it: in this Godspell, it ain't so!
This is a joyful, kaleidoscopic production. Director Anna Skidis Vargas and choreographer Taylor Rainbolt keep this sixteen-member cast in constant action to the tuneful, rocking accompaniment of music director Susan Finnegan, a couple of capable guitars, and a percussionist. Yes, there are occasional tableau scenes, but the solos occur in the midst of the rest of the attentive, reacting cast. From its origins at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970, the piece has stressed community through the teachings, largely parables, of Jesus. Most of us are familiar with the stories that make up Act I, so we're not necessarily learning anything new. Rather, we're watching a humble but cheerfully charismatic prophet exert his pull on dispersed individuals and transform them into a confident, celebratory assembly.
Greeno's Jesus is anything but sanctimonius or pharisaical. He beams with the confident energy of a fraternity president or quarterback. The cast represent both the disciples and the people. Except for John the Baptist and Judas, they're identified by their own names but only when credited for musical solos: Grace, Vivienne, Mia, Gabrielle, Mriah, Mattie, Lilian, Kiley, Tyler, Juan Diego, and Corey. That's the practice followed across the fifty-year history of Godspell.
The listing is also an indication of how the director has spread out the performance turns, giving everyone an opportunity to shine, both in song and in character. Each performer, clad in colorfully eclectic, sometimes eccentric garb imagined by Susan Branch Towne and with hair and makeup styled by Tara Cooper, comes vividly alive to you early in the action. They're youthful angels in idealized hippie colors. Check out Greene's boots, for example, Mariah Fonseca's bouncing one-sided tress, Lillian Harlow's intricate Swedish braid, or Christina Holly's elegantly tamed mountain of dark hair.
Doe-eyed Kiley Gaddis is especially poignant as the woman sentenced to be stoned for adultery and spared by Jesus's challenge to the crowd. This segue is to Gaddis as a Mary Magdalene figure with the number "By My Side." Another particularly exciting solo is Fonseca's lively "Bless the Lord."
My eye was caught by the ensemble work of Lilliane Harlow, Christina Hollie, Tyler Holmes, Gabrielle North, and Emile Silvero, but picking individuals out of this sparkling, precisely performing cast is a losing game. They've created a world so full of action that you'd perceive it differently if you came a second time or were seated in a different quandrant of the MMNT theatre-in-a-square.
Any bilingual will get a terrific kick out of the tale of the good Samaritan, told in Spanish from the high southwest platform and done in comic mime in the middle of the stage. The first person to come across the robbed and injured traveler is a sacerdote (priest)—which in Spanish gives the story a lively Catholic bite. Similarly, the Hebrew blessings at the last supper evoke the depth of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The St Ed's company uses the 2012 Broadway revival's revised orchestrations. I'd vaguely remembered Godspell as a friendly, folky, easy-going piece, maybe with strumming guitars and a Sunday-school vibe. This reworked score is alive, often ecstatic, and full of pounding rhythm. Advance material called it "jazzy," but if so, it's disco jazz, gospel, and a touch of rap. You're not going to drift off on some soporific saxophone solo.
Unlike the virtually contemporaneous Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell does not present Judas as anguished and angry. Equity actor Patrick Hartigan in that role is a contrast to clean-cut Greene but not a foil. His is a significant presence, more physically filled out than the undergraduates on stage with him. His frequently troubled expression, movement, and gesture present a man who wants to believe but is plunged in doubt, someone wrestling with his conscience and his experience of a harsh, unfriendly world. Hartigan's Judas is a sinner, yes, but no villain. His real betrayal is that of imperfect faith, compounded by Jesus's insistence, twice, that he do what he has to do.
February 16 - February 26, 2023
3001 S Congress Ave
Austin, TX, 78704
Feb. 16 - 18, 23-25 at 7:30 p.m., 2 p.m. matinees February 25 and 26, 2023
All performances will be held at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre on the St. Edward’s University campus, 3001 S. Congress Ave, Austin, TX. Parking is free.
Adult single tickets are $30, educator/seniors are $22, and student tickets are $15.
Tickets are available by calling the MMNT Box Office at 512-448-8484 or online HERE.