Addison — Godspell—music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by John-Michael Tebelak—has provided directors, designers, and actors with a canvas for creative interpretation for nearly five decades. On Thursday, WaterTower Theatre in Addison opened a two-week run presenting director Aaron Brown’s unique but clearly authentic take on this monument of American musical theatre.
Audience members enter to see a stage littered with bits of paper, overturned furniture, and various other items suggesting trash and abandonment. The performance opens with the usually omitted “Tower of Babble,” in which members of the ensemble intone quotations from various influential figures including, among others, Socrates, Galileo, Sartre, and L. Ron Hubbard (yes, L. Ron Hubbard). While this segment is available as an option for any production, and was part of the original show in 1971, the varied resonance of those quotes and their sources grates against the lean simplicity of the parables of Jesus presented in the ensuing play, and pushes the drama into the realm of ideology and theology, the absence of which is otherwise one of the strengths of Godspell.
Sadat Hossain takes on the central role of Jesus for this production, performing with a calm, unembellished charisma and a clear and beautiful singing voice. For this production, director Brown opted to give Hossain the song “Beautiful City,” originally written for the movie version in 1972 as a sort of joyful choral epilogue; as in many other productions, Hossain sings the piece as a pleading meditation. It’s always good to hear this beautiful poetry and melody in any of its versions and manifestations.
Feleceia Benton brings a ringingly proclamatory voice as John the Baptist, calling on the world to “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Alex Branton gives a haunting rendition of the challenging role of Judas at the point, in the story’s penultimate moments, when he steps out of the ensemble and into that character.
Each of the other actors in the ensemble (Devin Berg, Alyssa Cavazos, Jamall Houston, Emily-Kate Ivey, Jason Villareal, Charity Whitfield, Sky Williams, and Juliana Zepeda) perform the complicated trick of quickly transforming from one character to another as they enact the parables of Jesus, while at the same time establishing an anchoring sense of individuality. Part of what has made Godspell so appealing across the decades is the sense of ordinary, contemporary young people spouting contemporary (and often naïve) interjections, but learning and sharing ideas that are ultimately profound and even sacred. Brown’s vision of Godspell is unfailingly energetic and captures the carefully honed sense of improvisation that is part of the charm of the show. (A bit of unplanned improvisation came up when the backlighting failed for the shadow-play sequence, but the players never skipped a beat.)
Costume designer Becca Janney dresses the ensemble in a casual, quasi-grunge style, more or less updating the hippie costumes of the original production—but avoiding the circus and clown elements sometimes associated with the show. Adam C. Wright conducts the six-member ensemble, including electronic, digital, and amplified instruments with acoustic percussion, ranged on a balcony behind and about two stories up from the singing actors; this small, efficient group performs the pleasantly catchy and stylistically varied score with requisite verve. Unfortunately—maybe because of the placement of the orchestra, or opening-night jitters—the pitch intonation of the singers was frequently and unfortunately faulty at Thursday night’s performance.
Still, Godspell is a work that has held up beautifully and retains its freshness. Albeit with a few glitches, the work’s enduring charm comes across vividly in this production.