Dallas — Prepare thyself for great ensemble singing, from funk to folk, dance numbers ranging from hip-hop to vaudeville, plus silly laugh-out-loud gags, and even some sleight-of-hand—all delivered by an exuberant cast backed by a sharp band.
The gospel according to Matthew, filled with parables of kindness and hope, rendered in song by Stephen Schwartz, with book by John-Michael Tebelak, is the bedrock of Godspell, the huge Broadway hit from 1971. Rejuvenated and freshly imagined by director and choreographer B. J. Cleveland and musical director Scott A. Eckert, Godspell gets a gritty, focused staging at Contemporary Theater of Dallas. Schwartz, who also wrote the smash hit Wicked, would surely appreciate this earthy, youthful approach to the show that he and Carnegie Mellon classmate Tebelak began while still in college.
From the moment we sit down we know we’ve walked onto some crazy construction site, with set designer John Hensley’s black-out walls covered with graffiti surrounding empty packing crates and paint-spattered step ladders propped at all angles. Political debates blatter from two screens and newspapers are strewn across the stage. In “Prologue: Tower of Babble” the cast troops in down the aisles, and from both sides of the stage, all singing different parts of their stories as they angrily slam the crates atop each other, creating a stack of wood and discord surging into all-out cacophony.
Then Jesus appears from above, sliding down a green silk rope and embodied by a gray-eyed, radiantly smiling Max Swarner. The arguments become questions, and the parable-rich script opens hearts and eyes. Swarner’s true tenor voice is calm and reassuring in the ballad “Save the People.” A string of holiday lights go up and a comic, celebratory vibe fills the small theater as Whitney Coulter, a feisty dancer in army fatigues, leads the energetic multicultural cast of followers in a boogie-down rendition of “Learn Your Lessons Well.” Swarner’s Jesus demonstrates he can gyrate with the best of his disciples when the beat calls for it, and when everybody’s dancing the chairs in the back row vibrate to the rhythm, as well.
The easy, communal feeling of the show is heightened by the gospel rock sound of “Oh, Bless the Lord My Soul,” led by Caitlin Galloway in huge pink teacherly glasses. Willing audience members are brought onstage and into the action in a playful bible story quiz. Swarner and Jonathan Garcia, strong in the dual role of John the Baptist and Judas, do an elegant razzmatazz vaudeville bit in the hilarious “All for the Best” which explains, “someone’s got to be repressed!”
The swiftly paced show has its funny, sexy moments, but the melodious ballads keep us aware of the serious undercurrent of Jesus’ message. Sheridan Monroe’s voice throbs with the conviction of the newly saved in “All Good Gifts,” reminding us that spiritual gifts are greater than the rewards of world. Amber Flores’ deeply felt delivery of the hit “Day by Day” begins quietly with a single guitar behind the singer, then builds to a strong certainty as the four-man band seated above the stage joins in with the entire cast. All are brightly outfitted in Lyle Huchton’s clever motley costumes, indicating with a hardhat or a garbage bag robe if the character is a doctor, merchant, hooker, judge—or maybe a savior in white jeans and embroidered shirt.
Swarner’s Jesus is not all smiles and turn-the-other-cheek forgiveness. He strikes out at hypocrisy and moneylenders as he belts out an angry “Alas for You.” By the time we reach Jesus’ touching goodbyes to his followers and the red-swathed lighting of the crucifixion scene emerges, we are prepared. The show achieves quiet closure with Jesus’s heartfelt “Beautiful City,” Swarner’s face radiant with hope for a truthful and ordered city to grow from the chaos left behind. This vision of brotherhood is always a beacon, especially at this moment in our terror-stricken world.